Dodgers sign Samds

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 13, 2008

By Mike London
For a few days following last week’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, it appeared Catawba might actually have Jerry Sands back in right field next spring.
Hopefully, no SAC coaches turned in resignations or jumped off ledges because Sands is now officially a pro. He agreed to a contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday and flew to Vero Beach’s famed Dodgertown complex Thursday.
Sands is a New York Yankees fan, but he appreciates what it means to stroll down Sandy Koufax Lane and Roy Campanella Drive. Next week he’ll play at Holman Stadium, where Jackie Robinson, and the rest of Brooklyn’s Boys of Summer performed their magic.
“There’s a lot of history here and a lot of legends,” Sands said. “I’ve had a great feeling since I got down here that I’ve been given a great opportunity.”
It’s an opportunity that came at him as a slider on the corner rather than a 3-1 fastball down the middle.
No one saw the 6-foot-4, junior juggernaut lasting until the 25th round. He was projected to go in the same neighborhood as senior teammate David Thomas, who was picked on the 14th round by Oakland, but he stayed on the board a long time. Sands was the 757th pick, and anyone who has seen Sands hit would pay good money to see those 756 guys who are better.
Entering the draft, Sands received no guarantees, but the level of interest assured him he’d be selected.
The Cincinnati Reds had flown him to Great American Ballpark for an up-close and personal look. He had five pre-draft invitations and accepted four. He also worked out for the Dodgers, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Baltimore Orioles.
Sands knew his name wouldn’t be called when the first six rounds were conducted June 5, so that wasn’t a setback. Then his phone rang steadily that night, a positive sign that a lot of teams liked his tools.
“The scouts calling were wanting to know if I was still signable at that point in the draft,” Sands said. “I told them, ‘Sure, I’m signable.’ I felt pretty good about things and I slept fine that night.”
Friday, June 6, was more stressful. Round 10 sped by. Then Round 15. Then Round 20. More calls. More queries about his signability.
Finally, the Dodgers slowly pulled the trigger in the 25th round. The 25th essentially means a plane ticket and $5,000.
Sands, disappointed but not discouraged, told the Dodgers he’d consider any offer, but he packed his bags and accompanied his Wilson Tobs teammates to Florence, S.C., to play in a Coastal Plain League game.
But Lon Joyce, a veteran scout who handles the Carolinas and Georgia for L.A., met with Sands’ family and got things settled amicably.
“Honestly, I didn’t get what my expectations were going into the draft,” Sands said. “Money does matter some, but money aside, the main thing was school. Once the Dodgers agreed to take care of my last year of school, I was excited about signing.”
Sands was a standout football player at Smithfield-Selma High. He was a recruited linebacker, but when scholarships didn’t come through his senior year, Catawba was able to sign him for baseball.
Sands’ time as an Indian was phenomenal. Even his freshman year, when the team had power everywhere, he swung the bat pitchers feared most.
Pitchers became ill at the sight of Sands. Mark Smith or David Thomas might hit a liner over the fence, but Sands was the one who could embarrass them. There was always a chance he would hit a ball that didn’t come down or a ball that struck a water tower or a ball that simply disintegrated on impact.
If Catawba was the Justice League of America, Sands was Superman.
“Jerry’s power was unique to him, more power than anyone I’ve seen here,” Catawba coach Jim Gantt said. “What made Jerry special was he could miss it and still hit it out. Very few of his homers were those Newman Park homers. He hit most of his on the road, and there were lots of places we went that Jerry hit a homer that people said was the longest they’d ever seen in that park. He hit one at USC-Aiken no one could believe. He hit balls that no park, not even old Yankee Stadium, could hold.”
Sands’ three-season numbers were numbing รณ 61 homers, 205 RBIs, .381 batting average, .752 slugging percentage, 201 runs scored, 132 walks. The homers, slugging percentage and walks are school records.
“Patience was the biggest thing, even in those good lineups we had,” Sands said. “Be patient and when you get a pitch to hit, don’t miss it. Everyone wants RBIs, but by taking walks, I was scoring runs. Scoring runs helped the team.”
Sands not only looks like a linebacker, he runs like one. A second-team All-American as a junior, he stole 15 bases.
He was never all-or-nothing. As a junior, he hit 24 homers and walked 56 times, while striking out 27 times.
Sands played left field as a freshman because veteran Nick Lefko was outstanding in right. Opponents tested him and Sands gunned down 13 baserunners.
“With two outs and a man at second, we’d almost hope someone would hit a single to left,” Gantt said with a laugh. “A lot of times, someone was going to be out. He saved a bunch of games with his glove and his arm.”
Sands probably will remain in the outfield, although his height and agility make him a candidate for first base. Catching, the quickest path up the ladder, is an option. He caught in high school.
Sands will play wherever the Dodgers want him, and he could wind up with Ogden (Utah), the organization’s advanced rookie team, before the summer is over.
“Catawba’s prepared me for this physically and mentally,” Sands said. “I’m ready to take that next step and playing pro baseball is the ultimate dream.”
A solid student, Sands will earn his business degree someday, but for now there are more homers to hit. Maybe he’ll hit one so far they’ll name a road in Dodgertown after him.
You couldn’t blame Gantt for crying, but he’s smiling. He knew from the first week of his freshman season that Sands’ stay probably would be shorter than four years.
“I don’t think this is sad at all,” he said. “I think it’s ending the very best way it could end, with Jerry being drafted and getting signed. He’s worked for this. He’s earned it.”