Tuesday, July 17, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays' one-eyed reliever Sandoval keeps focus forward

PORT CHARLOTTE — Veteran pitcher Joel Peralta already had taken an unusual step when he called Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman directly this winter to recommend the team sign a 30-something reliever who had been impressive in the Dominican Republic.

"I told him this could be pretty good," Peralta said. "But I told him this is the catch: He's only got one eye."

Friedman paused, understandably, asked for a few details, then told Peralta to keep talking. A few more conversations and an emailed video produced a minor-league deal.

And, if it were to work out, what a remarkable story it would be: Juan Sandoval, completely blind in his right eye, pitching in the major leagues.

Sandoval had been on track, showing promise during five seasons in the Mariners organization and getting to the Double-A level. Then in February 2006, a wrong-place/wrong-time incident changed his life, cost him the use of his right eye and threatened to end his career.

Sandoval, his then-fiancee and some relatives were out for dinner in their hometown of Bonao when the restaurant security guard and a drunken old man began to scuffle. Sandoval heard the sound of a gun, turned to look and felt the searing sting of shotgun pellets, including three in his right eye. (The man was arrested, though Sandoval requested his release, believing it was an accident and wanting the man to be able to return to his family.)

A seven-hour surgery saved Sandoval's eye but not his vision. It was three months until he could open his eye without any swelling, nearly eight (and after a second smaller procedure) until he could play catch, and 10 before he was cleared to try to resume his career.

But by February he was back on the mound, pitching in big-league camp with the Mariners — his only problem was learning to compensate for a lack of depth perception when fielding — then splitting the 2007 season between Double A and Triple A.

"God blessed me; that's the only thing I could say," Sandoval said Friday. "I could do everything. … And I've been playing seven years after now."

It hasn't all gone well, though. The Brewers took him in the 2007 minor-league Rule 5 draft but released him after two seasons at Double A and Triple A. The Phillies gave him a brief look at Class A Clearwater in 2010, then let him go. Sandoval, with no minor-league offers, ended up spending the past two seasons in the relative obscurity of Mexico.

It would be totally natural to blame the incident for costing him a shot at the big leagues.

And, Sandoval said, absolutely wrong.

"I don't look at it that way," he said. "Nobody knows what was going to happen. … The only thing we know is that it hasn't happened until now. I didn't make it. Maybe a year out took a little of my tools. …

"But I fought. I fought back. And, honestly, I'm 32 years old, and I feel like I'm at the best moment of my career."

It was in Mexico, where he was 7-3 with a 2.97 ERA in 67 appearances in 2012, that Sandoval felt he finally had the right combination, mentally and physically, to reach the big leagues. He featured a mid 90s fastball with movement, a solid sinker, a slider and a splitter. He showed even more in the Dominican winter league, leading Peralta, who is from the same hometown and knew him as a teenager, to get involved.

Sandoval reported to Rays camp Thursday and quickly made a good impression.

"It's incredible," manager Joe Maddon said. "He's got a really good arm. And I'm so impressed with his ability; you watch his balance, his delivery, his finish. And it looks like his command is really good.

"I'm certain the fact that he's 32 and has been blinded in one eye probably kept him out of pro ball for a while. … (But) I haven't seen anything that would suggest to me he would not be able to do this. It's interesting to observe."

Sandoval isn't going to make the big leagues now, but a good spring and a solid couple of months at Triple-A Durham could put him in position.

"Being honest with you, if I could change something that happened in my life, I would not change anything," Sandoval said. "Everything that has happened has made me the person that I am right now. And I'm a really happy person. …

"This opportunity is something I was dreaming of. And I'm here."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]

 
Comments
Rays Blake Snell ready for All-Star turn

Rays Blake Snell ready for All-Star turn

Rays LHP Blake Snell is ready for his first All-Star opportunity tonight, expected to pitch the third and possibly the fourth inning."I'm excited," he said on the field before the AL batting practice. "It's going to be fun. I've been looking forward ...
Updated: 2 hours ago
MLB commissioner confident Rays owner is ‘going to get’ stadium deal done

MLB commissioner confident Rays owner is ‘going to get’ stadium deal done

WASHINGTON – Acknowledging both the challenges and urgency to work out a public-private financing plan, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred on Tuesday expressed extreme confidence in Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg to make a de...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Rays’ Blake Snell now in a starring role

Rays’ Blake Snell now in a starring role

WASHINGTON — Blake Snell first got the feeling after arriving at the All-Star hotel late Sunday night. He'd shared the first-class cabin on the Delta flight from Minneapolis with Rays teammate Wilson Ramos plus manager Kevin Cash and his wife, ...
Updated: 12 hours ago
Bryce Harper wins All-Star home run derby

Bryce Harper wins All-Star home run derby

WASHINGTON — Nationals star Bryce Harper has not had a lot to enjoy in his last season before free agency, struggling — at least by his usual standards — with a .214 average and other deficiencies in his game.Monday turned out to be...
Published: 07/16/18
Updated: 07/17/18
Rays journal: Some warn that pitching strategy comes at a price

Rays journal: Some warn that pitching strategy comes at a price

WASHINGTON — The success the Rays have had during two months of using a game opener followed by a relieving starter seems to have tamed some of the criticism of the unusual plan.Until Arizona ace Zack Greinke, a Cy Young award winner and five-t...
Published: 07/16/18
Tune into the only All Star Game that matters

Tune into the only All Star Game that matters

Summer was for beach days and watermelons and shorty pajamas and fighting with my brother over who gets to sleep in front of the fan.And summer was for the MLB All-Star Game.They'll hold the Midsummer Classic on Tuesday night at Washington's National...
Published: 07/16/18
Live from Washington: Rays Blake Snell was under consideration for All-Star start

Live from Washington: Rays Blake Snell was under consideration for All-Star start

UPDATE, 2:33: AL manager A.J. Hinch said  Snell, even though he wasn't named to team until Friday, was in the mix to start the game, that he was "not too far behind," though Boston's Chris Sale was chosen.  Snell is likely to be 3rd pi...
Published: 07/16/18
Sports Day Tampa Bay podcast: Rays conclude surprising first half of season

Sports Day Tampa Bay podcast: Rays conclude surprising first half of season

A walkoff loss on Sunday is the Rays' third in four games to the Twins and brings the first half of the season to a close. The team enters the All-Star break a surprising two games over .500 but will be without All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos for ...
Published: 07/16/18
Marc Topkin’s takeaways from Sunday’s Rays-Twins game

Marc Topkin’s takeaways from Sunday’s Rays-Twins game

There are times when Rays OF Carlos Gomez looks lackadaisical, but he made an urgent dash in from rightfield to near the mound when the benches first cleared and was ready for any action. Reminiscent of Jonny Gomes in '08.The loss is still what matte...
Published: 07/15/18
Rays journal: Twins grand slam ends heated game

Rays journal: Twins grand slam ends heated game

MINNEAPOLIS — That the Brian Dozier walkoff grand slam in the 10th inning that beat the Rays 11-7 was only part of the drama probably tells you all you need to know about Sunday's 4½-hour plus roller coaster ride, which included two benche...
Published: 07/15/18