CHULA VISTA, California — Former All-Star pitcher Esteban Loaiza, who earned more than $43 million over 14 seasons in Major League Baseball, denied allegations Wednesday that he is a cocaine dealer.
Loaiza, wearing a khaki jail uniform, appeared in San Diego County Superior Court in Chula Vista. He looked at his father and other family members before entering his plea of not guilty.
Prosecutors charged Loaiza, 46, with possession and transportation for sale of more than 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of cocaine, a cocaine base or heroin and using a false compartment to smuggle drugs.
The specification of more than 10 kilograms could draw a stiffer penalty, as could the allegation that the drugs were being stored at a townhome he leased that was within a 1,000 feet from an elementary school.
Loaiza would face up to 20 years and eight months in prison if convicted. The judge raised his bail to $250,000 after prosecutors argued the Mexican pitcher poses a flight risk. Defense attorney Janice Deaton agreed to the terms, though it was unclear if the ex-pitcher would post bail. Loaiza’s relatives and Deaton left the courtroom without speaking to reporters.
Loaiza was arrested Friday on suspicion of drug smuggling after San Diego County sheriff’s officers who pulled over the Mercedes Benz he was driving for a traffic violation found a “sophisticated” compartment used to hide contraband at the back of the vehicle, according to investigators.
They later obtained a search warrant for the home he rented in the community of Imperial Beach, where officials said packages were found containing a white powder believed to be cocaine and that weighed a total of 44 pounds (20 kilograms). The charges Loaiza pleaded to Wednesday are for any amount over 10 kilograms, prosecutors said.
Loaiza played for numerous teams from 1995 to 2008, included stints with the Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox. He had a 21-9 record with the White Sox in 2003 and started in the All-Star Game that year.
Investigators have said the arrest was part of an ongoing narcotics probe but have provided few details about how a successful baseball star became linked to a case involving the transport and sale of drugs with an estimated value of $500,000.
Criminal defense attorney David Shapiro, who has handled numerous drug cases in San Diego but is not representing Loaiza, said this case is unique because of Loaiza’s fame as one of Mexico’s most successful pitchers.
“At the very least what it shows is how Mexico’s drug culture is infiltrating every aspect of life, whether he was associated with people doing it or doing it himself,” he said.
Born in Tijuana, the Mexican city across the border from San Diego, Loaiza became a celebrity in his native country after marrying the late Mexican-American singer Jenni Rivera. The “Diva de la Banda” was considered to be the most successful female singer in grupero, a male-dominated Mexico regional style, selling more than 15 million records and acting in reality television before she was killed in a plane crash in 2012.
Rivera filed for divorce shortly before her death, ending their two-year marriage.
Agent John Boggs, who represented Loaiza during his Major League Baseball career, said he had not seen Loaiza in more than a year but that he had heard he was involved in a business selling Mexican-made hats.
“I love Esteban,” Boggs told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “He’s a great guy with a big heart. Again, I don’t know what or why he’d be involved in this. I have no idea. He’s a friend, and I’m sorry as heck to see what’s going on.”