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Rays' one-eyed reliever Sandoval keeps focus forward

Juan Sandoval, who signed a minor-league deal with the Rays, has intrigued some at Charlotte Sports Park.
Published Feb. 16, 2013

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 topkin@tampabay.com.

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