Juan Sandoval, left, lost sight in his right eye seven years ago after being shot. (AP)
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – Only a few of Juan Sandoval's teammates know what happened. Everybody who meets him in the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse notices his right eye, of course. It's impossible to avoid. The lid droops. The cornea puffs out and is slightly discolored. A red ring encircles it. And a glaze sheathes it, like there's a permanent tear ready to escape, only it never does, never can.
They don't know because they don't ask, and they don't ask because they don't want to stir any bad memories. And even if they were to, they probably wouldn't believe Sandoval. Because the idea of a blind baseball player really is that difficult to fathom.
Never will he forget the day: Feb. 4, 2006. And the scene: At a restaurant where a drunken man, angry with the bouncer who booted him, returned with the shotgun. And the noise: A blast, loud and furious. And the feeling: Panic and fear and chaos as three buckshot pellets lodged in his right eye. And the sight.
"Black," he said. "Nothing but black."
It's still black, permanent darkness out of the right side of his head, his depth perception nonexistent and his left eye forever tasked with transmitting the world into his head. And because his left eye remains good – better than it's ever been, in fact – he is still here, still playing baseball, still trying one more time to reach the major leagues after years on the cusp as a right-handed pitcher, standing on the rubber and staring in with that good eye.
The story of how Juan Sandoval came to be a Tampa Bay Ray is one of this spring's best, and even if he is a long shot to make the team now, this is no gimmick, no publicity stunt. It is about an organization that looks high and low for talent, a city in the Dominican Republic that produces it in spades and a player getting one final chance to fulfill what he's certain is his birthright: wearing a major league uniform for the first time, at 32 years old.
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"What happened is not something I'm carrying all the time, wearing on my chest so people can know," Sandoval said. "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."
About two months ago, during the Dominican Professional Baseball League season, Rays pitcher Joel Peralta noticed just how good Sandoval looked. They grew up in the same city, Bonao, an hour inland from the coastal capital of Santo Domingo and a bull's-eye on the Dominican Republic's geographic dartboard. Sandoval was hitting 94 mph with ease, and the movement on his sinker generated ground ball after ground ball.
For the last two years, Sandoval had kicked around the Mexican League, resigned to salvage his career there after three organizations gave up on him. From Seattle to Milwaukee to Philadelphia he went, never finding a foothold after the accident, his performance not good enough to warrant standing by a reliever pushing 30.
"Joel saw me a couple times and started asking me how come I'm not in the States," Sandoval said. "Maybe it was my eye problem. I was 32. I hadn't made it to the bigs. Many things not on my side."
While his right arm always was more important than his right eye, the disability chased him everywhere. In the aftermath, he underwent seven hours of surgery to save the eyeball. Sandoval was certain he would see again. His doctor never addressed it. So about 2½ months into a nearly year-long rehabilitation, Sandoval asked. And when the doctor told him he never would see out of his right eye again, a cocktail of anger and sadness and worry brewed inside him.
He needed to relearn how to catch a ball, how to field a comebacker, how to do so many of the things that once personified baseball boredom. Those skills allowed him back on the field, through the ups and downs and eventually pitching for Aguilas in winter ball, where Peralta served a dual role.
First he played scout.
"He has a tremendous feel for the game," Rays general manager Andrew Friedman said. "And he called me and said I needed to look at a guy. My curiosity was certainly piqued by the situation. One night [Sandoval] pitched, [Peralta] called me after the game. Came in, punched out a right-hander. Said this guy is throwing a bowling ball."
The rest of the conversation went something like this.
Peralta: There's only one catch.
Peralta: He's blind in one eye.
Friedman: Which one?
Friedman: OK, good.
Between the scouting report and Peralta vouching for him personally, Friedman said he would send a scout to see Sandoval throw. No need, said Peralta, in his second role: agent. To facilitate the signing, Peralta shipped Friedman a handful of emails with video clips of Sandoval throwing. That was good enough for Friedman. He called Sandoval and offered him a minor league contract. Sandoval signed Jan. 9, 24 days after his wife, Elisa Tejada, a doctor in Bonao, gave birth to twin boys.
She was with him that night at the restaurant, and she nursed him back to health in time for him to go to major league camp with the Mariners in 2007. This would be his first big league camp since. And since arriving, he has done nothing but impress, from the bullpen sessions early on to the live batting practice he threw Tuesday.
"I'm betting this: The fact that he has limited vision is why he hasn't been signed," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Because when you look at body, arm stroke, results the last couple years, he should've been signed now. Somebody would've given him a chance if he had two fine eyes."
Slowly, as his teammates see more of him and wonder who he is and where he came from, his story filters around camp. The idea of a blind baseball player is so odd, so novel – so cool, frankly – that the Rays want to know more. Like, you know, how does a blind guy play catch?
"Is he accurate?" Rays starter Matt Moore asked.
"Really accurate," said Jake McGee, a reliever and his throwing partner during workouts. "You can't even tell when you're playing catch. He's got a really good arm. Comes out strong. And it jumps."
Because of the Rays' pitching depth, Sandoval is a long shot to break camp with the major league team. A 162-game season leaves casualties in its wake, however, and if he pitches well at Triple-A and continues to play ground ball machine in front of a Rays defense that gobbles them up, he could find himself an injury replacement.
"If he pitched the way he did in winter ball in the Dominican and down in Mexico, he's going to do some good things for this team," Peralta said. "Not because he's my friend. Not because it's taken him so long to get here. Because he is that good. My present is going to be when he makes it to the big leagues."
Sandoval is certain he will. Players don't get second chances like this only to blow them. His arm is healthy. Sandoval thinks another six or seven years' worth of pitches are in there. His optimism isn't only optical.
For now, he's simply enjoying being back where he belongs. Sandoval is living this spring with Peralta and Juan Carlos Oviedo, another Bonao success story. There are Carlos Marmol and Wandy Rodriguez and Juan Cruz and Wilin Rosario, too, this city of 125,000 churning out baseball players like widgets.
Each is a success story, life in the D.R. capable of swallowing whole even the toughest kid. And yet for all the victories and saves and home runs that came from Bonao, Juan Sandoval, major leaguer, would be its biggest win yet. Even if he wants to be recognized more for what he has than what he's missing, Sandoval knows he would feel the full embrace of the sport, finally.
He can see it already. Clear as can be.
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