Joel Peralta watched his new teammate pitch one night in the Dominican winter league, saw the kid’s arm action, saw the life on his fastball and knew he had to call Andrew Friedman.
Yeah, the kid was 32, and yeah, he spent the past two seasons being overworked in the Mexican League, but the Tampa Bay Rays are a team built on good pitching, and Peralta was looking at a good pitcher.
So Peralta called Friedman and tried to sell the Rays executive vice president of baseball operations on Juan Sandoval.
“I think there is a catch,” Peralta finally said. “He’s blind in one eye.”
There was a pause. Then Friedman asked, “Which eye?”
“The right eye,” Peralta said
“OK,” Friedman said. “That’s all right.”
That’s the Readers Digest condensed version of how Sandoval came to occupy one of the first lockers inside the Rays clubhouse at Charlotte Sports Park. He wears No. 85 and dresses on the side of the room with the other players destined for Montgomery or Durham.
“This is the opportunity I was dreaming for,” Sandoval said. “I can not be more excited about being here.”
The story began in February, 2006 when Sandoval, then a Seattle Mariners farmhand, was having dinner with Elisa Tejada, his future wife, in a restaurant in Bonao, D.R.
There was a confrontation between the bouncer and a drunken patron. The patron was kicked out of the place but returned with a shotgun.
There was a blast, chaos, screaming and for Sandoval, darkness.
He was struck in his right eye by three buckshot pellets. He was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. There would be a second surgery. But the damage could not be undone.
Sandoval lost the vision in the eye.
His family and friends were worried. What would he do now that he couldn’t play baseball? Sandoval told them he would return to school, get a degree, find a career.
“Inside here,” he said, tapping his chest, “I was not going to allow anyone to put limits (on me).”
Sandoval missed the 2006 season. He returned to the U.S. in 2007 and resumed his career, bouncing through three organizations before finally being released after spending the 2010 season with Clearwater in the Philadelphia organization. He said it had nothing to do with the blindness in his right eye and everything to do with the fact he couldn’t figure out how make the transformation from a thrower to a pitcher.
That’s why he said his two years in the Mexican League are a vital part of his story. If you don’t produce there, you don’t survive, and Sandoval was intent on returning to a major league organization and reaching the big leagues.
“If I worked harder in the last three years it wasn’t about the eye. I have three kids now. I support my mom and dad. There are certain things in my life that are the ones that make me work harder,” he said. “This is my career, this is what I want. I have the talent. I want to keep working on this shot. I want to make it.”
Peralta is also from Bonao, D.R., so he’s known Sandoval for a long time. They became teammates during the offseason in the Dominican league. Peralta’s team didn’t make the playoffs, so he was selected by one that did – Sandoval’s team.
Peralta watched Sandoval pitch and wondered why he was pitching in Mexico when major league teams are starving for pitching.
“He’s getting everybody out, lot of ground balls, (he’s a) sinker baller, a lot of teams like those guys,” Peralta said. “I’m saying, ‘What’s the problem?’ and I’m thinking the only problem is the eye.”
Had Sandoval lost his left eye than his career would have ended that night seven years ago in the restaurant. But his left eye is his lead eye when he looks toward home plate. He can see runners on first base. The only problem is a lack of depth perception that makes fielding groundballs tricky.
Friedman told Peralta he would send a scout to watch Sandoval. Don’t bother, Peralta said. He was sending Friedman video of Sandoval pitching.
“Peralta has a really, really good feel for the game, and he also had a lot of conviction,” Friedman said. “He called me, talked to me about him, and basically stalked me after every Sandoval outing. He would call me and give me a report, how he looked, basically a play-by-play. I saw the arm action, the life in the body and, obviously, the stuff and signed him.”
Sandoval offered to buy Peralta dinner as a way of saying thank you. You can thank me by making it to the big leagues, Peralta told him.
“The key is he’s got a great, great, great arm. He’s not afraid to pitch,” Peralta said. “To me, he’s got a shot. I hope and I think he’s going to be here one day.”
Sandoval has been impressive during the first two weeks of camp while throwing bullpens and live batting practice. It’s not unusual to see Rays manager Joe Maddon and Friedman appear when Sandoval takes the mound.
“He’s got a lot of ingredients in place to be a major leaguer,” Friedman said.
With nearly all the pitching spots on the big club already claimed, Sandoval will begin the season in the minors. But he could work his way into the mix of pitchers called up during the season if the Rays need help for the bullpen.
For that, Sandoval said he is blessed. His handicap appears to be no handicap at all. In fact, everything good that’s happened in his life happened after the shooting.
“Seven years after it I’m here. I can not be more thankful with my life and everything that’s happened to me,” he said. “If I have to change something, I wouldn’t change anything, because I think I’ve learned a lot from everything that’s happened, and I really like the person I am and everything I’ve have done until now. I’m cool with everything.”