Nearly two years ago, former Pittsburgh Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez was charged with twenty-five counts of sexual assault and related charges for allegedly raping a thirteen year-old girl (at the time, he was 26). Late last month, after a multi-day jury trial, Vazquez was convicted of fifteen of those counts of statutory sexual assault, sexual abuse of children, and child pornography.
Vazquez faces as much as 30 years in prison as well as subsequent deportation back to Venezuela, which means that even if he receives the lighter end of that sentence, his playing career is almost certainly over at this point (given the severity of the crimes he committed, that’s undeniably appropriate).
What is perhaps more disturbing, and unfortunately relevant, is how his trial played out, and what we learned in that trial about MLB culture. We can start with Vazquez’s defense, which accused Vazquez’s victim of being a “reverse groom[er]” who targeted him.
Mr. Gerson [Vazquez’s defense attorney] told the jury that they shouldn’t believe that she was a naïve child who was groomed by Mr. Vazquez. He added that Mr. Vazquez genuinely believed she was an adult because she sent him a photo of a fake ID that appeared to show her age was 18.
“What this case is really about is reverse grooming,” Mr. Gerson said. “This is a case of a child grooming an adult.”
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Mr. Gerson also said Mr. Vazquez, as a pro athlete, was used to women coming onto him online, referring to him as a “physical specimen” who was naturally attractive to the opposite sex.
This argument is morally appalling, but not surprising. I have had cases myself where opposing counsel has made the same disgusting argument. What undermined it here, besides its moral repugnance, were the text messages Vazquez sent her.
“You’re going to stop being a kid now?” he texted her.
Throughout the conversations, she called him names like “papi,” “daddy” and “bae,” while Mr. Vazquez referred to her as “mami” and “babe.”
In December 2019, when she told him that she was at Walt Disney World, he sent a message telling her to “give up” her vagina, according to the testimony.
Later messages also showed him calling her “slave” and “my possession.” When she sent him a photo in her underwear, he said: “Wow look at you. Not the one little kid I meet three years ago anymore.”
What is frightening, however, is that at least some of those text messages were evidently sent by Vazquez on a regular basis from the Pirates’ clubhouse, and he spent at least one game sending sexually explicit messages to his victim.
That Vazquez was sending sexually explicit messages to a minor during games is news to which the Pirates have not yet responded.
It’s worth noting that this was far from the only toxic behavior Vazquez brought to the team’s clubhouse; he also punched then-teammate Kyle Crick for playing music too loudly.
Still, there is a chasm between punching another man and sexually assaulting a 13-year-old, and it beggars belief that the team had no idea he was sending sexually explicit text messages to a minor during games. It also casts the team’s response to his arrest, in which they immediately cleaned out his locker and removed all signs of his presence from PNC Park, two years ago in a new light.
It’s a fair question which the Pirates need to answer: did they know their All-Star closer was sexually grooming a minor during games? Did they protect him because he was their All-Star closer?
It also creates the question of whether the Pirates could be civilly liable to Vazquez’s victim and her family if they did, in fact, know about it and failed to take any action. This is a legal doctrine called respondeat superior, which “holds an employer or principal legally responsible for the wrongful acts of an employee or agent, if such acts occur within the scope of the employment or agency. Typically, illegal acts unrelated to employment are not the liability of the employer, and are called (unfortunately) “frolic and detour.” But if Vazquez was, in fact, doing these repugnant things from the Pirates’ clubhouse during a game, it is highly likely a court would consider his actions within the scope of his employment, and hold the Pirates at least partially liable.
Perhaps most distressing, however, was the moment during the trial when Vazquez did appear uncomfortable - not with the fact that he had raped an underage girl, but with something else entirely.
[Vazquez] described the way [the teenager] walked to his car as that of a “fashion model” and balked when asked by [Prosecutor] Lazar to demonstrate it for the jury. “I don’t want to walk like a woman,” Vazquez said.
Vazquez didn’t believe there was anything wrong with having sex with an underage girl, but he didn’t “want to walk like a woman.”
In other words, to Vazquez, being gay or trans would be worse than raping a teenager. If that is a prevailing attitude throughout Major League Baseball, the state of the game is worse than we could have possibly imagined.
Sheryl Ring is a consumer rights and civil rights attorney practicing in the Chicago, Illinois area. You can reach her on Twitter @Ring_Sheryl. This post is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice, and does not create any attorney-client relationship.