Spring Training is filled with stories of guys trying to make their MLB dreams come true, getting their shot to make a big league roster with an impressive showing in camp. That’s what Juan Sandoval, a 32-year-old right-handed reliever from the Dominican Republic, is hoping to accomplish this spring with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Unlike other major league hopefuls, however, Sandoval will make his case while being completely blind in one eye.
Sandoval happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time back in 2006 when a drunken man shot up a club, and left three shotgun pellets in Sandoval’s right eye. The man was angry with the club’s bouncer who had kicked him out earlier in the night, but it was Sandoval who got caught in the cross-fire, leaving him with “nothing but black” in his right eye and a total lack of depth perception.
Not that Sandoval is going to let that slow him down:
“What happened is not something I’m carrying all the time, wearing on my chesst so people can know. I don’t think about it. I’m just a normal player here. I don’t know how many — 50 players here? I’m one of 50 in the clubhouse. I’m a normal person, a normal player. I don’t like coaches or nobody giving me credit — or limits.”
Sandoval’s road back to this point has been remarkable. Following the shooting, he spent seven hours in surgery as doctors attempted to save the eyeball. When he was told that he would never regain his sight, he worked through his feelings of anger, sadness and worry as he began to relearn the game. Catching a ball, fielding a comebacker, and all of the little things that are so mundane for most baseball players all became new skills to learn.
But once he learned them, his comeback was on. Though he failed to catch on in the States with the Seattle Mariners, Milwaukee Brewers or Philadelphia Phillies in spring camps, he continued to press on. For the last two years, he has kicked around the Mexican League, he’s worked tirelessly to salvage his career. That’s where Rays reliever Joel Peralta saw him and knew that his stuff deserved to be seen by an MLB club.
So Peralta went to general manager Andrew Friedman and went to bat for Sandoval. He personally vouched for his fellow countryman, providing film and scouting reports for the Rays to convince them to bring Sandoval in for the spring. That was all Friedman needed, signing Sandoval to a minor league contract January 9.
And Sandoval has done nothing but impress since arriving. Through bullpen sessions and live batter practice, he’s proving Peralta’s faith in him was well placed. His fastball hits 94 mph with ease, and he has a sinker that can induce ground balls with regularity. Manager Joe Maddon has raved about Sandoval’s “body, arm stroke, results the last couple years,” and says that “he should’ve been signed now.” If not for the question of his vision, he likely would have been a staple in someone’s bullpen already.
But the trepidation of others is Tampa’s gain. The Rays have made a living searching high and low for talent and bringing in anybody they feel will give them an advantage. Due to the Rays’ pitching depth, it’s unlikely that Sandoval will break camp on the big league roster. However, the team still expects him to be a major contributor in 2013.
If Sandoval continues to pitch well at the Triple-A level and continues pitch like a ground ball machine in front of the Rays’ defense, then he will be the first name called up as an injury replacement. He’ll be first in line to step up when the long baseball season claims its first arm, and he’ll finally be able to realize his dream of pitching in the major leagues and put a happy ending to a long and trying comeback.