A star ballplayer's Reversal of fortune

  • 1999: Juan Acevedo with the St. Louis Cardinals.

    1999: Juan Acevedo with the St. Louis Cardinals.

 
 
Updated 3/31/2010 8:43 AM

On baseball diamonds in Arizona and Florida this week, major leaguers and the prospects who hope to join them some day are putting themselves through final preparations for the long season ahead.

Not too long ago, Juan Acevedo was among them, fine-tuning the pitching skills that earned him an eight-year career in the majors and nearly $4.5 million in big-league salary.

 

Now, however, the Carpentersville resident and former Dundee-Crown High School star is a long way from the days he saved games for the Detroit Tigers or wore the pinstripes of the New York Yankees.

Today, the 39-year-old Acevedo is locked up in the McHenry County jail, serving a six-month contempt of court sentence for violating the financial terms of his 2007 divorce settlement. The Huntley home where his ex-wife and three children live is in foreclosure. Court records show he owes about $44,000 in credit card debt, $12,000 from a failed restaurant venture, $6,000 to cell phone providers and another $4,500 to the Illinois Department of Revenue.

And instead of sharing a clubhouse with the likes of Derek Jeter, he's in a jailhouse with men charged with murder, rape and robbery.

"He's had reversal of fortune," Acevedo's attorney, George Mueller, said.

It is a reversal borne out a confluence of events: the sudden end to a prosperous baseball career, an acrimonious divorce, a crash in the housing market and the catastrophic failure of a business venture.

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For those who knew Acevedo as the talented right-hander who compiled an 8-0 record as a senior at Dundee-Crown or as a young major league reliever who compiled a 15-10 mark in his first three seasons in the bigs, where he is today comes as nothing less than a shock.

Fred Bencriscutto, who coached Acevedo for four years at Dundee-Crown, described his former player as very intelligent, not the type to fall prey to the financial woes that hit so many ex-jocks when their careers are over.

"I always thought that Juan pretty much had it figured out as far as his financial life was concerned," Bencriscutto said. "This was not a guy who would make the kind of mistakes to end up like this."

But while it may be shocking, Acevedo's story hardly is unusual. Tom Kowalski, a suburban resident who advises pros on life after sports and is Midwest Region Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sports, said once their playing days are done former athletes are far more likely to experience divorce, bankruptcy and financial distress.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"You're given a large amount of money when you're young and tend to live a lifestyle that once you're done playing you can't afford," said Kowalski, whose clients include the NFL, NFL Players Association and Chicago White Sox. "The average career for a professional football player is three years, but nobody thinks they're average and players are hesitant to think it's going to end."

Acevedo's pro career began shortly after a high school career that won him a place in Dundee-Crown's Athletic Hall of Fame. He was drafted in 1992 by the Colorado Rockies and throwing off a major-league mound three years later. He would go on to pitch, mostly out of the bullpen, for eight clubs over the next eight seasons.

In early 2002, just before what arguably was his most successful season, Acevedo married Sonja Ptach, with whom he would have three children. A year later, he was at the game's pinnacle, pitching for a New York Yankees team loaded with future Hall of Famers and expectations for another World Series crown.

Then it began crashing down. Thrust into the closer's role for the Yankees, Acevedo blew what would have been Clemens' 300th career win, against the Cubs in Wrigley Field no less. Three days later, the Yankees released him. Other than a brief 14-game stint with the Toronto Blue Jays later that season, it would be the end of his major-league career.

Two seasons later, he was out of American baseball completely, earning about $5,000 a month pitching for Monterrey of the Mexican League. That same year his wife filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences and mental cruelty.

As part of a 2007 divorce settlement, Acevedo was ordered to pay off the mortgage on the Huntley home his wife received under the agreement by December 2008.

Instead, Mueller said, Acevedo invested $300,000 in a new East Dundee restaurant called Abanazz. The business opened in the spring of 2008, but shut its doors just months later in what Mueller termed "a catastrophic failure." About the same time, real estate holdings Acevedo had accumulated during his career were declining in value or going into foreclosure.

"It wiped him out. He thought he was going to have a new career as a restaurant owner and it failed," Mueller said. "It wasn't just a failure. It was a black hole that sucked everything away with it."

Mueller said his client was making a good-faith effort to start up a post-baseball career so that he would continue to provide for his children.

The business failure, combined with his loss of earning potential as a professional athlete, left Acevedo unable to pay off the Huntley mortgage as ordered. In October, McHenry County Judge Martin Zopp gave him a choice: Pay off the $250,000 mortgage or its $35,000 arrearage by Dec. 1 or go to jail for six months. When Acevedo couldn't find the funds to make the payments, Zopp sent him to jail for a term that won't end until May 29.

"It's really shocking," Bencriscutto said when told of his former player's incarceration. "It seems unfair that someone would have to go to jail for six months because he couldn't pay a divorce settlement."

Ptach and her attorney are less forgiving. Acevedo's inability to pay off the mortgage have left his former wife and children on the verge of losing their home.

"It's a pretty grave situation," Ptach attorney Carl Gilmore said. "They're in serious jeopardy." Both he and Ptach note that at the time Acevedo invested in the restaurant, he was under court order to pay off the mortgage.

"He had at least some assets and he choose to put them elsewhere," Gilmore said. "His first responsibility in this case was to his family and those children, not to anything else."

"The house is the only asset I received out of the divorce," Ptach added. "I feel like he just thought he could get away with not complying."

Acevedo was back in court this week, asking Zopp to let him out early so he could pursue another opportunity to pitch in the Mexican League. Zopp denied the request, a decision Mueller found perplexing given that it was his client's best chance of making a financial contribution for his ex-wife and children.

"If he had the funds, he would pay (the mortgage)," Mueller said. "Nobody wants to sit in jail."