Donny Sands had a decision to make but it wasn’t too difficult in the end.
Sands was selected in the eighth round of the 2015 draft by the New York Yankees but also held a scholarship offer from New Mexico University to play baseball. The decision came down to one factor.
Sands lost his father, Roger, in 2012 and grew up moving from house to house while his mother, Alma, worked long hours to put food on the table. The adversity drew them closer. “It was a little different for me, helping out my mom and such. For me the decision coming out of high school, you get money right away as going to college for three years and seeing what happens, but for me I wanted to take up the call that was the best for me and my family,” Sands said. “My mom is my best friend. I literally do this all for her. It’s like an everyday thing, getting up when you don’t feel like doing much or don’t feel well, stuff’s not going the way you want on the field, you look for the bigger picture, you know hopefully it pays off and that’s my main motivation.
Sands grew up in Tucson, AZ and played high school baseball at Salpointe Catholic High School, where he was a standout playing shortstop and pitching. Sands caught the attention of the New York Yankees, Texas Rangers, San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks among other teams before the draft. Sands did work out for the Yankees, but still didn’t know who would draft him. “I don’t think you ever know who’s going to draft you, but I played on their scout team going into that summer and I kind of had a good idea but as crazy as the draft is you never which team is going to take you, but I was talking to them.”
And when the Yankees did come calling, Sands was excited. “You just want the opportunity, it was awesome that the Yankees gave me the opportunity. It’s cool to be drafted by the Yankees, so it was fun,” Sands said. “I was excited, really excited, it was your dream comes through. With all the work you do, it was like being rewarded, it was really exciting.”
Sands was assigned to the Rookie level Gulf Coast League Yankees 1 team where he played third base. Sands slashed an impressive .309/.405/.364 and earned a late season call up to the Charleston RiverDogs. In the last week of the 2015 season with the Dogs, Sands hit .310 with a double and four RBI in seven games. Sands noticed the step up in competition from his high school days. “Everybody can play. In high school, you always get those two or three good players on each team. You come out here and everybody can throw pretty hard, everybody can run. It was a big eye opener for me, everybody’s good.”
For 2016, the Yankees sent Sands back to the Rookie level Gulf Coast League where he played third base, but was presented with an interesting proposition. Sands was asked to move from third base to behind the plate to catch. Sands had never played catcher at any level. “I guess that’s what the front office wanted. They asked how I felt, so I felt better about it. Whatever they see, whether it’s a skill set that’s best fit for that. I was excited. They presented it to me and I was excited. It was like restarting all over again. Pro baseball is hard and then changing positions, it’s even harder, but it’s been a lot of fun. I’m having a blast.” Sands was assigned to Pulaski in August where he finished off 2016 catching the final 13 games of his season. His offense doesn’t slip with the position change. Sands hit .300 with a double, two home runs and 10 RBI in 60 at-bats.
The transition to catcher has been difficult at times as he’s had to change his mindset. “The easiest part has been putting on the gear, that’s pretty much the easiest part. It’s just a lot of stuff. At third base, you’re worried about fielding ground balls and a few positioning things. You’re like a coach out there. You have to be paying attention, know what’s going on, so it’s tough. If you’re not prepared, it’s going to be tough,” Sands said.
During the winter, Sands didn’t take a break away from the game. He wanted to make sure he was ready for a 140 game grind behind the plate. “I stayed in Tampa the whole offseason. I think I went home, the day was December 23, so I was out for instructs, I was out for everything. I worked with Josh Paul (Minor League Catching Coordinator). I had a catching instructor, the whole offseason with him and then Rigo Febles, one of our head strength and conditioning, all the guys down in Tampa did an awesome job. They have their own families, but being able to come in and work with me in the offseason when they could be doing their own thing was awesome. I stayed out there and we worked our butt off all day.”
Sands was assigned to the Charleston RiverDogs where he’s handled the bulk of the catching duties. He credits his coaching for his continued improvement throughout the season. Early in the season, Sands was struggling with passed balls and blocking wild pitches. He also had trouble getting throws off to second but has corrected those kinks in his game.
“Hector Robago, our defensive coach down here (in Charleston), I’m forever grateful to him, he’s put in tremendous work with me. I’m a stubborn kid and it’s tough changing, you get frustrated when stuff happens. Both of us and Josh Paul who’s also down here, our head guy, we just been putting in tremendous work. It’s just like trust the process, honestly, as cliché as it sounds, but just trust in it and trusting all our work and it’s nice to see it coming into play in the games,” Sands said.
While he’s trying to develop his entire game, Sands has been trying to hone in on the finer points. “It’s just kind of paying attention to the details. The stuff the people in the stands can’t see unless you’re kind of looking for it. Just little things. Of course I’m working on everything, but right now it’s attention to details, and especially the last month of two of the season, it’s trying to cut down on stuff like that and just helping the team win as much as I can,” Sands said.
Part of Sands’ learning process has come when it’s time to put down the sign for the pitch. The catchers get no help from the bench when it comes to what pitch to call. “All the catchers here call our own games. You learn. It’s like they say, it’s how you learn. When the pitcher, when they give up a hit, you learn maybe not to call that pitch the next time so it’s learning by trial and error. Everyone’s supportive around here, the pitchers are supportive, so it’s good.”
Sands has been a productive hitter for the RiverDogs this season. Sands has slashed .269/.323/.350 and has driven in 45 RBI in 76 games. He credits Ty Hawkins with his consistency at the plate. “Hitting coach Ty Hawkins, I’ve been with him now for two years since rookie ball, and he’s the man. Some mental approach stuff, some mechanical stuff, my hands, my approach and again, just not giving these pitchers on the other teams too much credit. Just trying to go up and do some damage and just trying to be consistent.”
Sands credits the entire coaching staff in Charleston for not only his success, but the team’s success. “They’re awesome. They’re beyond awesome. Os (Patrick Osborn), the manager, from Ty Hawkins, all the strength guys, Harris (Seletsky), our clubhouse guy, I mean everybody fully supports us. I couldn’t do it without them for 140 games. Anything you need, they support us. When you’re feeling down, this game’s not easy, so it’s a help when people are in your corner pushing you.”
The coaching staff thinks as highly of Sands as he does of them. “Donny is one of the most improved players on the team. From where he started day one to where he is now, he’s made tremendous progress. That’s a credit to him and Hector Rabago and the work that they have put in. Along with Eduardo Navas because they push each other. It’s safe to say we wouldn’t be where we are without Donny,” RiverDogs manager Patrick Osborn said.
Sands participated in Captain’s Camp this spring and got to meet Derek Jeter. The meeting left a lasting impression on him. “I don’t really get star struck that much, but I remember him walking into where we were eating, that’s the first time I say you could feel that someone in the room. You know how he is on TV is the same guy as he is in private… It was awesome meeting him and seeing the type of guy he was and how he goes about his business, it was awesome. It impacts the young players like us,” Sands said.
Sands improvement earned him the call to the Tampa Yankees on August 6 and so far over two games he has three hits in seven at bats.
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