Pro Baseball: Former Catawba star Sands seeks roster spot with Dodgers

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 26, 2012

By Mike London
SALISBURY — Jerry Sands, the pride of Smithfield, N.C., and Catawba College and the most popular substitute teacher at Corinth-Holders High School and Archer’s Lodge Middle School is now in Arizona trying to make the opening day roster of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The 24-year-old Sands (6-foot-4, 220) spent several days recently at Catawba, taking swings and playing long toss at Newman Park, modeling a sharp blue cap and jacket and looking bigger and stronger than ever.
Besides substitute teaching, Sands’ busy offseason included playing for the Tigres del Licey in the Dominican Republic in October and November and getting married to Morgan Pace, a girl he met long before he was on the verge of being rich and famous.
“It was a big offseason,” Sands said. “Playing winter ball. Getting married. Buying a house. I got a little faster and a little stronger.”
Sands’ career at Catawba was legendary. In 2008, his junior year, he batted .390 with 24 homers, 56 walks and 85 RBIs — in just 61 games.
When he lasted until the 25th round of the draft, Catawba fans thought they might actually have him back in the lineup for his senior season — but no such luck.
Sands’ ascent through the Dodgers farm system didn’t take long. Just one year after he was playing for the low Class A Great Lakes Loons (that’s the same level as the Kannapolis Intimidators), he was in the big leagues.
Sands was the Dodgers’ 2010 Minor League Player of the Year, but they didn’t keep him on the opening day roster for 2011.
But five homers in his first 10 games at Triple A got him elevated to a big-league team starving for production from left field.
Imagine what Sands was feeling in his debut on April 18. Relocate everyone in Smithfield to Dodgers Stadium and you’d still have 43,000 empty seats.
L.A. fans had been waiting impatiently for the slugging rookie, and there were chants of “Jer-ry! Jer-ry!” the night he debuted against the Atlanta Braves.
“The crowd was awesome, and that was a surreal night,” Sands said. “The Braves were a team I’d watched growing up and the guy who’s on the mound for my first at-bat is Tim Hudson, a guy I’ve watched for years. A lot of emotions went through my head. There was pressure, obviously. I was excited, nervous.”
Sands, a right-handed hitter, doubled to the opposite field. He was batting 1.000, and the chants multiplied.
Sands has still got the baseball he stroked for his first MLB hit, as well as the balls he propelled for his first big-league homer (off Chicago’s Mark Buehrle) and first grand slam (off Houston’s J.A. Happ).
But Sands’ first trip around the league brought more failure than success.
“I kept telling myself just to keep doing the things I had done to get to the big leagues,” Sands said. “You want to relax and you have to relax if you’re going to do well, but I think I just tried to do too much. That hurt more than it helped.”
After 125 at-bats, Sands was batting .200, and the Dodgers shipped him back to Triple A in June with a “needs more seasoning” label attached to his collar.
“There aren’t any slouches pitching in the majors,” Sands said. “They know what they’re doing, and if they miss it’s usually because they wanted to miss.”
An army of bloggers piled on the demoted Sands like linebackers, criticizing his outfield defense as well as his work at the plate.
“The bloggers are part of it, a part of it you can’t control,” Sands said with a laugh. “But it’s up to me to work on the weaknesses that I can control. Do that and I’ll prove the doubters wrong.”
For the record, despite his size, Sands is unlikely to ever be a liability defensively. His speed is fine. His throwing arm is better than fine.
As often happens with prospects, Sands’ original appearance in the big leagues created a dozen times more fanfare than his quiet recall in September. Sands knew it, but a lot of fans didn’t realize he was a different player — a more relaxed player — when he returned to L.A.
At the plate, he went 24-for-59 down the stretch. That computes to a .407 batting mark.
His final MLB numbers still were modest — four homers and 15 doubles in 61 games — but those 29 Triple A homers he hit in just 94 games shout potential.
So does the .367 batting average and .433 on-base percentage he put up against big-league southpaws.
Will he start this season with L.A., where the minimum MLB wage is now $480,000?
That’s still to be determined. The Dodgers re-signed Juan Rivera, a 33-year-old journeyman who hit .274 for them last season, and he’ll likely get the first shot at left field.
“The Dodgers have to cover all the bases, have to protect themselves,” Sands said. “But I feel like I’ve got a shot to start if I play like I can.”
The numbers are on Sands’ side. There’s nothing left for him to prove in Triple A.