PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — His right eye offers darkness, nothing but a black void, a permanent reminder of a horrific February day seven years ago that changed his life forever. His drive offers light, hope in a time of year when it shines its brightest, a lasting motivation to achieve a dream.
Early Friday, Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Juan Sandoval stood near his stall at Charlotte Sports Park to extend his chase. He’s blind in his right eye, the result of being shot by three buckshot pellets after a crazed drunken man sprayed a restaurant in Bonao, Dominican Republic, following an incident with security while Sandoval ate dinner with his then-fiancee and now-wife, Elisa Tejada.
What followed would have beaten a lesser man. He spent more than a year away from the game to recover. He toiled in the minor leagues as part of three organizations, the Seattle Mariners, Milwaukee Brewers and Philadelphia Phillies. He fought to be noticed over two years in the Mexican League, all with a goal of digging into more decorated mounds to the north never leaving his mind.
Throughout the major leagues, these are weeks for potential. Non-roster invitees dress alongside franchise names and envision a time when they will make possibility reality. Each dreamer carries motivations, some personal, others public, and in Sandoval’s case, a quest to achieve peace of mind that he did everything in his power to realize his promise despite an unfortunate — and unbelievable — obstacle.
“It is a nice journey,” Sandoval, 32, told FOXSportsFlorida.com. “I have learned a lot. If I could change one thing in my life, I wouldn’t change anything, because I have learned from everything that has happened to me. That has made me the person I am now, and I’m a really happy person. I’m happy with everything that is going on in my life. I’m not missing anything. I’m not missing anything I could have had.
“People say, ‘Oh, you could have been in the big leagues the last five years.’ Nobody can know that for sure, so I don’t think about it. What I’ve learned is that you’ve got to be positive as a person and have confidence in yourself.”
That confidence is visible upon meeting him. He speaks like he belongs among veterans, with erect posture and arms folded either behind his back or across his chest. The affected eye leaves a stark first impression: A red ring surrounds his brown iris, like a thin circle drawn with a ballpoint pen. The cornea is puffy and glazed over. He slips on sunglasses before being filmed. He has no peripheral vision, so he’s unable to track his right arm as he unwinds.
On the surface, Sandoval’s injury is a fascination, an open-ended question about a freak event that could have ended his career. But learn more, and his story goes deeper: The eye is a testament to his desire and discipline to make those closest to him proud.
“You’re looking,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said, “at a dreamer.”
Sandoval’s dream started after high school. A former basketball player, he was immersed in the small Caribbean nation’s love affair with baseball growing up. In time, an acquaintance told him to try the sport. He worked out in front of a trainer, who told him, “You have a lot of talent. You should get into it and put interest in that. You can be a professional pitcher.”
With those words, Sandoval changed his course. He quit attending university classes. At first, he decided to devote two years to baseball to see where it would lead. In 2002, he broke in with the Mariners’ Rookie League team at age 21, beginning a four-year stretch where he never advanced further than Class AA.
After the shooting, he reached Class AAA with the Mariners organization in 2007. He made the Brewers’ Class AAA roster in 2009. But like with Seattle, he never was promoted to the major-league club.
A veteran sense of skill brought him to Tampa Bay. This winter, Rays reliever Joel Peralta, also from Bonao, watched Sandoval play in the Dominican Republic. Movement in the prospect’s pitches impressed him. Peralta contacted Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman, who became intrigued after watching video clips of the journeyman. The Rays signed Sandoval to a minor-league contract Jan. 9.
“It’s unbelievable,” Peralta said. “What that guy went through and being able, after what happened to him, to have the heart to keep playing this game, it has something to say about the kid. … To me, half the guys in this room — maybe more than half — would have quit as soon as that would have happened. The guy keeps playing. He got better than what he was before anything happened. That says a lot about him.”
To Peralta, Sandoval’s best attributes are the ones that have allowed his friend’s dream to come this far: Sandoval is as tough as rusted nails, he’s a tireless competitor, he’s unafraid to attack hitters. In recent days, Peralta has watched Sandoval in workouts and noticed another positive: He’s having fun.
“Certain guys have different drives,” said Rays reliever Jake McGee, Sandoval’s throwing partner in workouts. “Just his attitude every day is good.”
Hope and inspiration can be some of the most powerful elements in sports. Both teams and individuals channel them, and their impact can be as large as athletes playing under a native country’s flag at the Olympics or as small as a high-school quarterback competing for hometown pride. They can lift talent to levels never reached before, sparking achievements that began as dreams.
Sandoval says he never thinks about his injured eye, though his story has become one of baseball’s most attractive this spring. He finds hope and inspiration elsewhere. Other factors drive him: his wife and kids — Alvin (1 year), twin Jhansel and Johansel (2 months). He’ll continue to fight, until he can look at his family and say, “I tried hard. I did my best.” He wants closure.
“It’s something I can’t even describe,” Sandoval said when asked how he pictures his first major-league start. “Just imagining it is something that makes me excited. I know it’s going to be really emotional whenever it happens. I hope it happens this year with the Rays. It’s something we have to wait and see. … If I give everything that I have now, and I don’t get it, I’m going to be happy with it.”
From here, Sandoval’s future is unknown. In many ways, though, he has already won. He’s scheduled as one of 11 right-handers to dress for the Rays in their spring-training opener Saturday against the Pittsburgh Pirates. This is his second spring with a major-league club, after spending the 2007 session with the Mariners, and he enjoys being treated like a 10-year veteran here.
“I know I’m fighting for a spot,” Sandoval said. “If (I don’t make the roster), I just want to show Tampa that I can help the team anytime in the season in the big leagues. If I don’t break camp with the team, I just want to put in a good effort wherever I go and be there anytime.”
His right eye offers darkness, but the light keeps him going. Hope, inspiration, motivation, all are part of his chase. All are part of who he has become.