By Bill Sorrell
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist
Juan Sandoval has never lost sight of what is most important in life despite being blind in his right eye.
In February 2006 Sandoval and his then-fiancé, now wife Erisa, and other family members were having dinner in his hometown of Bonao, Dominican Republic, before returning to the United States for Major League Baseball spring training with the Seattle Mariners.
A drunk man began arguing with the restaurant security guard. Shots were fired, and three pellets hit Sandoval’s right eye.
Rushed to the hospital for seven hours of surgery, doctors saved his eye but could not save his vision.
Baseball was on hold.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen in my career. I couldn’t do any physical activity. The only concern was to be healthy and at least to have a normal life,” said Sandoval, a right-handed pitcher whose recovery would take more than a year.
Sandoval began to see clearly the truth of 2 Corinthians 5:7, “We walk by faith, not by sight.”
“If you don’t have faith, you have nothing. I put my faith in the Lord. With the accident I didn’t have a doubt about it. I knew I could keep playing,” said Sandoval, who was a strong believer before but said his faith had grown stronger as a result of the injury.
Missing the 2006 season, Sandoval returned in 2007, pitching for the Mariners’ Double-A Southern League team, the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx, and the Tacoma Rainiers in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.
“It was amazing. Whenever I came back to the field, I could do everything. I was surprised. Everybody was surprised. I’m still pitching. I feel like a normal person, a normal player. I do everything everybody else does in the clubhouse, on the field and off. It was the Lord. I put my faith in the Lord. I think that has been the key,” Sandoval explained.
‘Play for Christ’
The biggest problem he has had in baseball since the injury has been catching ground balls because of depth-perception.
“You need both eyes,” he said.
But he looks at his baseball career as part of a larger picture.
“I play for Jesus Christ. He is the one. I thank God because He has blessed me in many ways. To be wearing the uniform still is a real blessing. Baseball is what I do for a living. This is what I do to feed my family. This is what I love. This is a job like everybody else. There are more important things in my life outside baseball. My God gave me all those things.”
Sandoval is still playing because of God’s purpose.
“I believe that God works in mysterious ways,” he explained. “We don’t understand why something happens [but] He has a plan,” Sandoval said. “I understand that everything happens for a reason. That is why I am happy every day.
“You never know what is going to happen. There are many people in the hospital, in jail, that don’t have their freedom, their health. I have everything. Why do I want to be sad? Why not enjoy that?”
Through his career that began in 2002 in the Seattle Mariners’ Rookie League through this past season with Oaxaca in the Mexican League, Sandoval has impacted teams and teammates.
He played for two Southern League affiliates in Alabama, the Huntsville Stars in 2008 and the Montgomery Biscuits in 2013.
He has been on spring training rosters for Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, and played at the Triple-A level with Nashville and Durham.
On 16 teams, Sandoval has an 86-88 record and an ERA of 3.98 and 906 strikeouts.
Neil Schenk, who pitched with Sandoval in Montgomery, heard Sandoval reply to a question during an interview in Mobile when asked if he had made it to the big leagues: “I haven’t made it to the big leagues but I am playing for Jesus Christ right now.”
“He loves the Lord. You can tell,” Schenk said. “He wants to play for the love of the game and also for Christ. The way he speaks about the Lord, the way he talks about God and his love for Him, you can tell it’s real. It’s obvious.”
Sandoval has one of the best attitudes of any player around, Schenk added.
“He takes advantage of every single day. He loves to play it the right way to represent himself, his family,” Schenk said. “He has a positive attitude. He has a passion for baseball and for leaving a legacy, having people remember Juan Sandoval even if he doesn’t rise to the highest level in the game.”
But Sandoval still has Major League Baseball dreams.
“My goals are still there. I want to pitch in the major leagues. That is why I am still going. I think the reason why I haven’t made it yet is maybe being out for that year cost me, not because I don’t see out of one eye.
“But what about the other people who don’t play baseball? Other people that can’t throw 90 miles per hour? We are all brothers. We all go to the same goal. Having Jesus in my life has been the most outstanding thing,” and is the reason why he has been so positive, Sandoval said.
“I have become a better person, a better father, a better husband, better brother, better teammate, better son.”
He doesn’t allow people to feel sorry for him because he is blind in one eye, or give him credit.
“I feel like a normal person, like a normal player. I have raised my family since this. I thank God because He has blessed me in too many ways. I’m still wearing the uniform.”
Sandoval makes the “absolute most” of his situation, Schenk noted, and is “lighthearted about everything. He sometimes cracks jokes and is real witty about things. He is fun to be around.”
Sandoval describes himself as a happy guy who likes to sing, joke around and always let people know about his faith. The constant theme of his life: “I have Jesus in my heart.”
Psalm 73:25 is his favorite verse: “Whom have I heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.”
After playing in the Mexican League from 2014-19, Sandoval now waits to find out where he will play when baseball resumes after the coronavirus pandemic.
One day he wants to be an architect, but for now, he continues to persevere in baseball.
‘What I’m here for’
“I have learned that if I want something, I go for it,” Sandoval said. “I’m tough to take down.”
Sandoval considers he is in church wherever he is because of God’s words in the Bible, especially those talking about Jesus. They are always in sight.
“Christians are people who follow Jesus, no matter what church you go to or where you are coming from or what language you talk,” Sandoval said.
“There are no words to describe what Jesus means. I don’t think it’s about words. It’s about actions. I can tell you as many words as I want right now, but I think our actions, the way you move around, the things that you do or don’t do, how you go to people, different life situations, that is when you realize, ‘this is what I am here for.’”