Sandoval earning his way despite limited vision
Right-hander determined to win job in the Rays' bullpen for 2013 season
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Seeing things doesn't necessarily require good vision.
Juan Sandoval has just one functioning eye, but he sees more things than most do with two. The soft-spoken right-hander from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, has been the warm and fuzzy story during the early part of Spring Training. And with good reason -- one-eyed pitchers are not just an oddity, they simply don't exist.
Nevertheless, Sandoval has earned an opportunity to be in camp.
Having only one eye "is nothing I wear on my chest," Sandoval said. "It's something I forget about."
Sandoval worked one inning -- allowing one run on two hits with a strikeout -- in the Rays' Grapefruit League contest with the Twins on Sunday.
While he would love to be simply a "pitcher" rather than "the guy with one eye", he hasn't shied away from telling his story because of the possible inspirational value to others.
"I really like the person I am," Sandoval said. "I like what I have done -- I'm cool with it. If I make it, I'm going to be happy because I know it's a story many people in the world can use to work for something they want."
Sandoval, 32, originally signed with the Mariners as a free agent on Aug. 3, 2000. In February 2006, he was dining at a restaurant in Bonao, D.R., when a drunken man accidentally hit him with a shotgun blast that left three pellets lodged in his right eye. He underwent two surgeries and was able to save the eye, though the tear duct is dried and the eye has no vision.
Listening to Sandoval, one would think that he has lived two lives, the one with two eyes and the life he now leads. One also gets the feeling that the incident served to enrich his life rather than destroy it.
Sandoval missed the 2006 season while dealing with the recovery process. During that same period his future wife, Elisa Tejada, helped him get back on the field. She had been with him the night of the accident.
By 2007, Sandoval was back earning a place in the Mariners' camp during Spring Training. He had not returned to a Major League camp until this spring.
Chapters to Sandoval's life were written in the years sandwiched between the Spring Training stint with the Mariners and this year's with the Rays.
Tejada is now a doctor in Bonao as well as Sandoval's wife. The couple has three children, including twin boys that were born this past winter. On the field, Sandoval has continued to labor in obscurity while refining his craft. Ultimately, he said he wasn't ready for a shot like the one he is getting this spring.
"I would think, 'Why am I not making it?'" Sandoval said. "Now I can see that I was young and I was missing too many things -- command, control, changing speeds."
Sandoval has spent the past two seasons pitching in the Mexican League, an experience that turned up the learning curve.
"The Mexican League opened the door," Sandoval said. "I got a lot of experience there. ... [The Mexican League] was crazy. They don't care [about development], as long as you're getting people out. Winning is the only thing that matters there."
Sandoval's opportunity with the Rays came via Joel Peralta, who hails from Bonao. The Rays reliever already knew Sandoval when he became his teammate in the Dominican Winter League this past winter. Peralta watched his friend pitch and continued to be impressed.
"He's a guy that can hit 97 mph," Peralta said. "And a sinker ball guy. He's got good pitches. That's the main thing. His makeup. How he carries himself in the clubhouse. He's a really, really good kid."
What Peralta observed prompted Peralta to call Andrew Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations.
"If he wouldn't be a good pitcher, I'm not going to call," Peralta said. "But I saw this guy pitch in winter ball with me and he was lights out. He's getting big league players out in winter ball and I said this guy needs a chance. I think because what happened to him, teams were scared. But if he's getting guys out, who cares?"
During Peralta's phone conversation with Friedman, Peralta eventually had to tell him that Sandoval had vision in just one eye. Friedman didn't miss a beat. "Which eye?"
Peralta told him it was his right eye and not his left, which immediately put Friedman at ease. Because Sandoval is right-handed, pitching would be difficult if he had to twist his neck around to allow him to see with his right eye. Having a functioning left eye makes it possible for Sandoval to do what he does.
Sandoval signed with the Rays as a Minor League free agent on Jan. 22. An invitation to Major League camp during Spring Training came with the deal.
"This is the opportunity I've dreamed of," Sandoval said.
Joe Maddon pointed out that Sandoval is fighting against some severe odds. However, the Rays' manager did note, "I love the fact that he stayed with it. We all do."
Maddon called Sandoval "a really good athlete" while touting his merits as a pitcher.
"You don't hear about it, but I'm sure his other eye has developed more completely because of the lack of vision on the other side," Maddon said. "I don't even know if this guy has any handicap holding him back right now. I'm not seeing it, no pun intended. He wants to be treated normally, which we're going to do.
"I watch him throw, man, and it's good. He's got the body, the delivery and the arm stroke to throw strikes. And with that kind of stuff, if he's a strike-thrower, he's going to be effective. So you just love the idea, and he sets the example for a lot of people who may have had some unfortunate moment. Just stay with it. I think it's great."
Sandoval has brought an unbridled joy to the Rays' clubhouse this spring. While some might look at him and think how lucky they are not to have gone through something like what Sandoval went through, Sandoval feels as though he is the one who is blessed.
"God works in mysterious ways," Sandoval said. " ... I'm not missing anything because of my eye."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.