In February of 2006, then-Mariners prospect Juan Sandoval, at that time hoping for a promotion to Class AAA, was eating at a restaurant in his hometown of Bonao in the Dominican Republic. A bouncer at the restaurant got into an argument with a drunk patron, and the patron went to retrieve his shotgun. Sandoval, wrote the Seattle Times in 2007, "heard the gun's pump-action, turned to see what was happening and took a blast to the upper torso and face." He ended up with three pellets in his right eye, leaving him permanently blind on that side. One would have thought it was game over for his professional pitching career. Doesn't depth perception matter with, you know, throwing a ball a certain distance at a certain speed?
Yes and no. Only a year later he was back in spring training as a non-roster invitee for the Mariners, and though he didn't make that team, Sandoval has since played on a dizzying array of teams in every level of baseball except the majors (Huntsville, Nashville, Quintana Roo and Oaxaca make up about half his stops in the last seven years). This year, he's at Tampa Bay's spring training as a non-roster invitee, and the people whose opinions matter are high on him:
Manager Joe Maddon says, "Juan has been really interesting so far. He throws [a heavy sinker], he's got a nice slider. He's got a good, live arm. I'm impressed."
Though it's unlikely Sandoval will be on the opening day roster, team officials hint there could be an open spot at Class AAA.
The Bergen County Record's Bob Klapsich, usually a Yankees beat writer, caught up with Sandoval at Rays camp. Klapsich was hit by a line drive and had very similar vision problems before undergoing seven separate surgeries to reattach his retina, fuse broken bones, and get a transplanted cornea. Sandoval described the strategic adjustments to him:
Relying on one eye – robbed of depth perception – wouldn't be so awful if its only surcharge was eliminating the 3-D effect at the movies. But Sandoval is unable to judge distance once an object is within five feet, which makes parking a car difficult. But even that would be an acceptable write-off compared to the adjustments Sandoval has been forced to make on the field.
"Comebackers are tough for me," he said. "I have to count the bounces to know how I should field the ball. That's a drill I've had to learn."
Sandoval's peripheral vision is gone, too, which means he has no sense of his right arm as it delivers the ball. It's like pitching in a completely darkened room – without visual input Sandoval is dependant on muscle memory for success.
He's spent hours in front of the mirror, practicing the perfect arm slot, the proper release point.
Sandoval tells himself that if Jim Abbott can pitch with one hand, he can pitch with one eye, but at least Abbott could tuck his glove under his armpit. Klapsich, one of the few who can imagine, says the partial blindness made him feel "like I was watching my life through a miniature TV screen." It's impressive that Sandoval makes it to the ballpark everyday—what he does when he gets there is unreal.