COVID-19 may have put Major League Baseball on hold indefinitely, but elsewhere the game we love is still being played and former Dodgers are playing it.
Where to turn when there is no MLB to watch? How about Nippon Professional Baseball? For an old-friend alert, you might start with the Hanshin Tigers, based in Osaka, Japan. That’s where ex-Dodger Jerry Sands, now 32, is trying to crack the 28-man roster.
On Monday before a team workout, Sands and I practiced social-distancing, by using FaceTime. We’re at the point in the pandemic where, before Sands could talk to me, team officials had to take his temperature so he could gain access to his own clubhouse.
“They’re taking some precautions,” Sands said, “but we’re still getting on trains and riding in cabs and going to different hotels -- so we’re trying to make sure we’re healthy.”
There’s no doubt Sands loves baseball. Despite a career-long absence of a guaranteed roster spot, he remains motivated enough to continue to play wherever he can. After being drafted in 2008 and an MLB debut in 2011, Sands logged just 156 total major league appearances for five different organizations: The Dodgers, Rays, Indians and White Sox. His lifetime stat line reads this way: .238/.303/.367, 10 home runs and 57 RBIs in 420 at bats.
Like countess others, Sands was a more successful minor-leaguer: he hit .275/.366/.508 with 180 HR and 609 RBIs in 3312 at bats over 936 games.
Sands’ family has been his primary support-system. They’ve been along for the ride, which first took them to the Korean Baseball Organization in 2018, and now Japan. Sands' wife Morgan and their two boys, Eli and Tucker, now five and three respectively, joined him for most of the 2019 season in South Korea.
“My wife’s a trooper. She stays with the boys and they come to most of the games ... it’s been a great experience for us,” Sands said. He adds that embracing new cultures and seeing different parts of the world has benefited the boys.
You’d think Sands' stellar season in 2019, during which he hit .305/.400/.543, with 39 doubles, 28 home runs and a KBO-leading 113 RBIs, would net him some form of guarantee in in 2020. But that hasn't happened.
“I’ve been working for a few years to get to Japan to make some money before I get too old to play the game,” Sands said.
Because of the novel coronavirus, Sands and his Tigers’ teammates played the majority of their preseason games in empty stadiums. The 2020 NPB season had been scheduled to open yesterday, also without fans. If league and health officials deem it safe, the earliest the public could be allowed back is April 10.
So while Sands has an extended Spring Training of sorts to make his case, and even with the two previous seasons of success in South Korean ball, his Tigers'roster spot is far from a lock. In NPB, a team is only allowed to have four foreign-born players on its main 28-man roster, which must be a combination of pitchers and position players.
For some perspective on Sands' situation, I spoke with Jim Allen, a longtime baseball reporter in Japan, who recently interviewed Sands for a piece he did for Kyodo News.
“My guess is that they are going to keep at least two of the hitters. The Tigers’ big problem [in 2019] was not their pitching, but their hitting,” Allen said.
As of now, Sands is in direct competition with former-Angels Jefry Marte and Justin Bour. If the Tigers elect to keep two foreign pitchers, then only two of the three former major league regulars will make the final 28. We'll see about Sands.
I also talked to a rabid Hanshin Tigers' supporter named Trevor Raichura, who runs an English-language website devoted to the team.
Raichura has been keeping track of the non-Japanese players race this preseason. Through March 19, Sands is 5-21 (.238) with two homers and two RBIs in eight games. Marte is 5-19 (.263) with 2 HR, 4 RBIs and Bour is 4-20 (.200) with a single run batted in. Obviously a small sample size.
“Marte and Sands are the better two of the three,” Raichura said. “But Bour has the best contract of the three and he’s also got the highest ceiling, so I’m betting that Bour is going to get in."
If Sands doesn’t make the cut, he’ll be sent to the Tigers' farm team, and like in major league ball, must spend 10 days in the minors before being recalled. Sands is prepared for whatever comes next. “I’m here to play and help this team win, so whatever they think is best."
Check out Jerry Sands’ Hanshin Tigers cheer song, which the team creates for each player. The fans learn the songs and sing them at each home game.)
In case you are still in the mood of hating the Astros, here’s Sands hitting a massive grand slam off J.A. Happ in May of 2011 at Minute Maid Park.
Jake Reiner is a native-Angeleno and is currently a sports and news reporter for KCBS/KCAL, Channels 2&9, where he has covered the Dodgers, Lakers, Chargers, and most recently traveled with the Rams for the entire season as the beat reporter for KCBS.