Donny Sands has proved the adage – If you can hit a pinto bean, you can hit a baseball – true.
And Sands’ ability to hit a baseball has led him from Tucson to Tampa Bay, where he is playing with one of the two New York Yankees’ rookie ball teams in the Gulf Coast League.
Sands, who was born in Tucson before moving to Albuquerque when he was in the third grade, was an eighth-round pick of the Yankees in June’s MLB draft.
But that probably could not have been possible for Sands without the help of his mother, Alma, who spent countless hours tossing batting practice to Sands in the family garage. Only instead of lobbing baseballs to her son, Alma used pinto beans – a tradition she brought with her from her birthplace of Ciudad Obregón, Sonora, Mexico.
“She is the best mom,” Sands said. “She made the most out of what we had, and she did whatever she could to help me get better. It’s pretty cool.”
Sands was a bat boy for the UNM Lobos under former head coach Rich Alday and current Lobo boss Ray Birmingham, and he trained at the Albuquerque Baseball Academy before his father, Roger, unexpectedly passed away in the winter of 2012.
“He was the one who trained me my whole life and the one who I give all the credit to,” Sands said. “It was right before freshman year, so I hadn’t even played high school baseball. So it was tough that his dream to see me play fell short. It was really tough. I didn’t know if I should still play baseball, but that kind of stoked the fire for me to work even harder.”
After his father died, Donny moved to Tucson with Alma, where they began their ritual of taking pinto bean batting practice.
Alma would set a timer for five minutes and pitch to him. If he hit every bean, the session would end. If he missed one, they would restart the clock.
“I pitched to him because hitting beans is good practice,” Alma Sands said. “We did that every day and he got pretty good.”
Sands spent his freshman and sophomore years at Empire High School and drove in a total of 103 runs. He finished his career at Salpointe Catholic High School, where he hit .437 and drove in 58 runs in 52 career games. He also struck out 58 batters in 341/3 innings pitched.
“Donny Sands was a 95-mph arm and a great hitter and a great shortstop,” Birmingham said. “They don’t come around too often.”
Unfortunately for Birmingham and the Lobos, Sands didn’t come around at all. Although he originally committed to return to Albuquerque to play for UNM, Sands signed a contract with the Yankees and received a $100,000 signing bonus (The slot value of the pick was $170,300).
“It was tough because I knew coach Birmingham and he had helped me out a lot, not just with baseball,” Sands said. “When I signed, he gave me a call and he was pumped.”
Birmingham said he was proud of Sands but realized his team took a hit.
“I was happy for him but at the same time I knew he was an impact player for us,” Birmingham said. “He was a D.J. Peterson. He was a Justin Howard. In his case, he was also a great pitcher, so I lost two players in him. But I’m happy for him.
“He was in a difficult situation where he lost his Pops, and his mom was struggling to make it. Finances weren’t very good. But the people of Albuquerque put their arms around him, and they cared about him. A lot of people were looking forward to seeing him come back here. He’s a super kid.”
Mike Foote, co-owner and founder of the Albuquerque Baseball Academy, also had high praise for Sands.
“I’ve seen him while he was playing with us and when he was playing with an Arizona team,” Foote said. “He’s the real deal. He’s a rare guy these days as a kid who is a two-way player.
“He’s a lot like Alex Bregman in that at a young age you could see the instincts that he had. He always played shortstop even though you knew he wasn’t a real shortstop. But he was able to be a good high school, a good club shortstop just because of his instincts.
“And his bat is just unbelievable.”
So far that unbelievable bat, honed by years of swinging at beans in a garage, has produced a .307 batting average and 14 RBIs in 22 games while mostly playing third base in the GCL.
“It feels awesome,” Sands said. “I’ve adjusted pretty well. It’s different. It’s every day. It’s a job now.”
Sands also was able to share an awesome moment with Alma when he found out he was going to be a professional baseball player on June 9.
“It was ridiculous,” Sands said. “That morning I had to drop her off at work and she said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Whatever happens, happens.’ Once I got that call, I went back to her work and told her. It was probably the best thing I could’ve done.”
Alma teared up as her son delivered the good news, knowing all of his – and her – hard work had paid off.
And how would have Roger Sands reacted to the news of his son being drafted?
“He would have given me a huge, big bearhug,” Sands said.