A few weeks after playing in his last high school baseball game, Donny Sands found himself in Tampa, Florida, not knowing what he was getting into as the New York Yankees eighth-round draft pick.
Days in the Gulf Coast League were long, humid and fueled by 90-degree temperatures. Sands, a third baseman, was shuttled to George M. Steinbrenner Field at 6 a.m., where he’d do his morning routine and stretch before practice. Game were played in front of a small crowd at 1 p.m. Afterward, Sands lifted weights and was shuttled back to the hotel.
The Salpointe Catholic product did that six days a week for 10 straight weeks.
“You kind of lost track of days until it was Sunday,” Sands said. “It was pretty surreal; I was still kind of this young, high school kid. I show up, and there were all these men there. I didn’t know anybody, and I didn’t know who to talk to. It was kind of a dream that I was there. I just showed up and tried to make way my.”
Slowly but surely, his dream was becoming a reality.
Now, Sands is hoping to help make the dreams come true for local youth baseball players. He is co-hosting a baseball camp on Saturday with 520 Elite Baseball at Kino Sports Complex. The camp begins at 9 a.m. and is for ages 9-13.
Santa Clara’s Travis Howard (Marana), New Mexico’s Luis Gonzales (Catalina Foothills) and Austin Peay’s Alex Robles (Tucson High) are the other notable instructors along with Sands.
In 48 games of rookie ball, Sands finished with a .309 batting average, 26 RBIs, 27 runs scored and a .405 on-base percentage. He also tallied 24 walks and seven stolen bases.
“I knew I was playing well, but I didn’t want to look at the stats, I just wanted to keep playing.” Sands said. “And then all of sudden, one day, I woke up, and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is not a dream; this is real.’ ”
Sands rubbed elbows with — and sought advice from — Yankees big-leaguers who were sent there on rehab assignments, such as pitcher Bryan Mitchell, closer Andrew Miller and outfielder Carlos Beltran.
Outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury treated Sands to a dinner at a Brazilian steakhouse, where the two talked about growing up in New Mexico. He had run-ins with former Yankees Alfonso Soriano and Hideki Matsui.
Sands was walking out of the clubhouse one day when someone called out his last name. He was shocked; he didn’t want to double-take Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson.
Jackson had heard about Sands’ progress and wanted to take time to hit with him, one-on-one for an hour.
“He told me I have what it takes,” Sands said. “He told me to listen and take advice from everybody, but at the end of the day, it’s my career. I’ve got to do what’s best for me.
“He told me not to get comfortable in the minor leagues, and when I get comfortable, remember that nobody signs a professional contract to be a professional minor-leaguer.”
At the end of the season, all of the rookies took flights home, except Sands. The Yankees saw something in him and shipped him to Charleston, South Carolina, to play Single-A ball with the promise of a bright future with the organization.
He started with an 0-for-4 debut and a game-winning fielder’s choice. The next day in batting practice, the Riverdogs’ co-owner, actor Bill Murray approached Sands with some friendly advice.
“He said ‘Why don’t you get a hit? I don’t want to have to let you go,’ ” Sands said.
Sands listened: He notched nine hits, four RBIs and scored three runs in his final seven games.
“They told me if I keep developing, I’ll be a big, strong, power-hitting third baseman,” Sands said. “In two, three years you could see me in the Bronx.”