‘You’ve got to find a way’: Tigers’ Donny Sands continues to clear obstacles, defy odds

Detroit News

Detroit — Donny Sands was 15 years old when his father died. It was New Year’s Day, 2012. Roger Sands, who served in special operations for the United States Army, was 50 and suddenly his heart stopped.

The man who taught Donny how to throw and catch and hit a baseball, the man who would put 5-year-old Donny through two-a-day workouts on sunbaked fields in Tucson, Arizona, and later in Albuquerque, New Mexico — “Baseball was like boot camp and I wanted more and more.” — the man who coached him in little league, the man who drove him to University of New Mexico baseball games where he was a bat boy along with Alex Bregman, the man he celebrated a regional championship with at age 10, the man to whom he vowed he’d be a professional baseball player one day was gone.

“Mom,” Donny said to his mother Alma the next day, “I’ve got to get to a ball field.”

We don’t often get to know what burns inside these players, what drives them. With Sands, though — the 26-year-old catcher the Tigers acquired from the Phillies along with Matt Vierling and Nick Maton for Gregory Soto and Kody Clemens — he wears his competitive fire on his sleeve.

More accurately, on his glove. He has his mother’s name, Alma Sands, inscribed on every catcher’s glove he owns.

“Everything I do, I do for her,” he said.

A year after his father died, Alma had to go back to her native Mexico to work, even though she knew she’d have to leave Donny behind. Her brother had a dental practice there and he offered her a job. But she knew Donny, who was in high school and drawing interest from big-league scouts, needed to continue his life in Tucson.

With his father and mother gone, though, and money tight, Donny Sands was essentially homeless.

“Yeah, I lived out of my (2006) Toyota Camry,” he said. “Looking back, I’ve never been a person that asked for help. Maybe that’s because of how my dad was with me. Like, you figure it out. I know people got their own stuff going on in their lives and their own problems. And I was like, I don’t want to bother nobody. I will just do it on my own.”

Eventually, his friends and coaches figured out what was going on and Sands was offered houses to stay in and couches to sleep on. And there was Vic Acuna. A few years before he died, Roger Sands had entrusted Donny’s baseball development to Acuna.

“He’s my big bro,” Sands said.

To this day, Acuna serves as Sands’ hitting coach, personal trainer (along with his real brother Bryan), friend, mentor and life coach. He helped keep Sands together emotionally after his father died and he’s been with him on every step of this journey, seven rough years climbing up through first the Yankees’ and then the Phillies’ systems and through the day last September when he and Alma flew out to San Francisco to watch Sands’ make his big-league debut.

“When you think about it, your whole life’s work goes into that moment,” Sands said. “Just a lot of struggle and a lot of failure to get there. A lot more bad times than good times. But just the relentlessness of getting to that point was something I’ll never forget and definitely worth all the hours of training and suffering and all that stuff.”

The work doesn’t lie

The routine between Sands and Acuna hasn’t changed much over the years. They still train out of a garage — just a weight rack, 45-pound plates and a chin-up bar. A Mexican flag adorning one wall. A goals chart on another with boxes to be checked, like make a 40-man roster (done), big-league debut (done), win rookie of the year, become an All-Star, etc.

“He’s an old-school Mexican guy,” Sands said of Acuna. “It’s like Rocky training. I’m not into high-tech training. I’m into being a ballplayer, a dirt dog and getting after it. The work is the work. That’s what I love about the city of Detroit. That’s what it’s based on — hard-working people. And that’s definitely what I want to bring to the city, just a team that works its ass off.”

One of Sands’ baseball heroes is Yadier Molina, who famously trained his whole career out of a garage in Puerto Rico. If that was good enough for a future Hall-of-Famer like Molina, it’s certainly good enough for Sands.

“The work doesn’t lie,” he said. “You don’t need a big fancy place and pay $40,000 a month to work out.”

Roger Sands was never big on excuses. It’s part of what the Army teaches — you have a mission, you get it done, regardless of the obstacles.

“That’s always been my thing,” Donny Sands said. “It doesn’t matter what you have. Everyone makes excuses because they don’t have this or that. It’s like, you’ve got to find a way. If you really want to get there, you find a way.”

Like if your dad dies suddenly and your mom moves back to Mexico and you have to sleep in a Toyota Camry for a while, find a way. If you get transitioned to catcher your first year in pro ball, even though you were drafted as a third baseman, find a way.

That’s what happened. The Yankees, who drafted Sands in the eighth round in 2015, moved him to catcher the next year and the struggle was real.

“Like first I had to learn to catch the baseball,” he said, laughing. “I think I was one of the worst catchers anyone had ever seen when I first made the transition.”

He had 14 passed balls in 20 games in rookie ball. He had 24 passed balls the next year between Low A and High A. And then, gradually, by the time he got to Triple A, he became one of the best receivers and pitch framers in the Phillies system.

“It was just self-belief,” Sands said. “There were growing pains over the years, but I prided myself on being a great catcher even when I was one of the worst. It’s all trial and error. But, also, it’s putting a lot of my life and time into this, trying to master the position and giving myself a chance.

“I think everybody who is good at something, in whatever field they’re in, was bad at it at one point. You learn. You learn from your mistakes and you just grow from that.”

His arm and his bat have never been in question. He had a .732 OPS over seven minor-league seasons, slashing .293/.383/.448 with an .832 OPS his last two seasons in Triple A. He’s shown superb plate discipline at every level.

“For me, hitting is like a mindset,” Sands said. “Of course you have the physical attributes, the hand-eye coordination and the mechanical stuff. But it’s a mindset, right? It’s literally you against the other guy. It’s the only sport where you get that one-v-one — it’s the all-time best confrontation.

“I’m a super competitive person and I take hitting personally. You are in a dogfight against that guy. That’s how I look at it. You’re trying to hit missiles all over the yard.”

Ready to dominate

Sands admitted he was stunned when he got news of the trade. But it took literally seconds for him to go from stunned to, “excited and thrilled and jacked up.”

His opportunity at the big-league level in Philadelphia was impeded by the large presence of J.T. Realmuto.

“He’s pretty good, right?” he said, laughing. “But like anybody, the superstars, when they came up they were behind people. It’s just a process. I know my role. Just learn and grow and when the time comes it comes. But you’ve got to be ready to earn that.”

Sands will come to Tigers camp essentially in a fight with Jake Rogers to be the second catcher behind Eric Haase. Opportunity knocks.

“We’re coming in ready to dominate, ready to help the Tigers win baseball games,” Sands said. “As for the role, that’s not my job to decide that. My job is to make sure I’m as prepared as possible coming into spring, which I am.

“I love winning, man. And I love competing our asses off as a team. That’s what I’m looking for. Just get there and play as a team and you just have fun and let the cards fall where they fall.”

With his $100,000 signing bonus from the Yankees, Sands was able to buy his mother a Mercedes-Benz. He sold his old Camry for $2,000. He’s bought his mother a house in Tucson. And he’s just scratching the surface of his ambitions.

“I want my mom to have the biggest house in the world, even if she doesn’t want it,” Sands said at the end of a six-minute video produced and released last September by Municipal athletic apparel. “That’s what it’s always been for me, to one day be the greatest and build an empire out of this.”

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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