International pastime: Former SSS standout continues his career in Asia
Posted on June 16, 2020
When Jerry Sands traded his Wilson Tobs uniform for that of a Los Angeles Dodgers’ minor league team in June of 2008, little did the Smithfield-Selma High product realize he was beginning a journey …
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When Jerry Sands traded his Wilson Tobs uniform for that of a Los Angeles Dodgers’ minor league team in June of 2008, little did the Smithfield-Selma High product realize he was beginning a journey that would take him around the world.
After playing parts of two seasons in the Korean Baseball Organization, the major leagues of South Korea, the outfielder and first baseman signed a contract in December with the Hanshin Tigers, a founding member of the Nippon Professional Baseball’s Central League in Japan. After a delay because of COVID-19, the league is scheduled to begin play June 19.
“This is what God’s blessed me with a lot of talent to do, so I kind of want to make sure that I use the talent as long as I can,” Sands said during a recent FaceTime chat from his residence in the Hyōgo Prefecture in Japan.
The 32-year-old said he hadn’t planned on going to Japan to play baseball.
“I honestly would have been fine with staying in Korea for the rest of my career,” he said. “It just came down obviously to a business decision, a financial decision. This team (Hanshin) offered me a good deal, and I want to get it at this point in my career. But I loved my Korean team; it wasn’t just a stepping stone. I even told them in the negotiation process (that I appreciated them) bringing me over here to finish my career because (they) gave me a chance. But the (KBO) team just couldn’t financially meet anywhere close to what (Hanshin) could, so it was just a complete business decision.”
So Sands and his wife, the former Morgan Pace of Emit, and their two sons, 5-year-old Eli and 3-year-old Tucker, left their Wendell home to return to Asia. Sands arrived in January for spring training while Morgan and the boys came in March. But during their journey from North Carolina to Japan, the coronavirus pandemic had spread quickly around the globe.
“Morgan got on the flight with the boys and came over, and within their flight, everything kind of happened,” Sands said.
Within short order, the NBA and NHL had suspended their seasons in the United States, and baseball had halted spring training, both in America and in Japan.
Sands said life in Japan under quarantine, or “state of emergency,” as it’s called there, was not too restrictive, though team activities were curtailed.
“We’re just doing running,” he said. “We can work out, we can do BP (batting practice), throwing — kind of do the normal stuff that you need to keep your body moving — but as far as scheduled team practice, there is none.”
Sands said that he’s having to make changes in his normal preparation for the season.
“We’ve been doing it for so long that we kind of schedule our body to be in this state at this time,” he said. “You build in the offseason to be at this point when you go to spring training and, after spring, hope to be at this point. So it’s weird because I don’t know what to do. Right now, it’s still kind of building a little bit in the season because it’s still early, but I don’t want to overdo it now and then, once practice starts, maybe get an injury or something. So it’s definitely weird. We’re all trying to schedule out to try and figure out what’s the best for longevity and for keeping our body in shape.”
HAPPY IN ASIA
But life in Asia has been agreeable for the Sands family, especially the baseball part.
“That was one of the biggest things that people told me when I went out there (to South Korea), ‘Hey, they do things differently, their culture is different, the baseball is different,’ ” Sands said. “You just kind of have to not sweat the small stuff and just kind of do your business. Be respectful. It’s been an easy transition for me because I don’t need things my way. I’m pretty easygoing, and I work hard, so I don’t really have to worry about them thinking I’m slacking off.”
Sands played for the Tobs in the summer of 2007, establishing himself as one of the top players in the summer collegiate Coastal Plain League. He returned to Wilson for the 2008 season but didn’t stay long. The Dodgers drafted him in the 25th round of the MLB First-Year Player Draft in June, and he signed right away, ending his collegiate career.
The former Catawba College star (and still the Indians’ all-time home run leader with 61) climbed steadily through the Dodgers’ minor-league system before making his major league debut in April 2011 after starting the season with the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes. Sands doubled and drove in a run in his first game, a 4-2 Dodgers win over the Atlanta Braves. However, Sands couldn’t find a permanent job in Los Angeles, bouncing between there and Albuquerque through the 2012 season.
Sands was one of two players named later in a blockbuster deal between the Dodgers and Boston Red Sox in October 2012. Two months later, the Red Sox shipped him to the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he never played in Pittsburgh, instead spending the 2013 season with their Triple-A affiliate in Indianapolis.
The Tampa Bay Rays pick Sands up off waivers, and he played in 12 games in the majors in 2014. He signed a free-agent deal with the Cleveland Indians in the offseason and played in 50 games for the Tribe in 2015, the second-most of any of his big league seasons. But it was another one-and-done season for Sands, who resurfaced with the Chicago White Sox in spring training in 2016.
He found himself the recipient of an unexpected break when Chicago first baseman Adam LaRoche abruptly retired during spring training over the team’s issue with his young son being in the team’s clubhouse.
“That coincidentally got me a spot in the big leagues because I wouldn’t have made the team if that wouldn’t have happened,” Sands said.
But it was more of the same for Sands, who played in only 24 games with the White Sox, compared to 73 spent in Charlotte with Chicago’s Triple-A farm team.
Japanse teams had courted him in 2015, but Sands hadn’t given much thought to it until the 2017 season came around without a contract. After a stint in the Independent Atlantic League in 2017, he landed a minor-league deal with the San Francisco Giants and played for their Double-A affiliate, the Richmond Squirrels, in 2017 and 2018. While it was his first Double-A experience since 2010, Sands was happy in Richmond since it was only two hours away from his Wendell home. But he realized that if he wanted to extend his playing career for a few more years, he would have to look to the east — as in the Far East.
“When you start doing the bouncing up and down, Triple A to the big leagues, you hope to stick, but at that point in time, I was going up and I was getting kind of minimal at-bats,” Sands said. “So I kind of knew as I was getting older that was kind of going to be the extent of my career, unless I just out of nowhere like J.D. Martinez got an opportunity and took the most of it — which I would have I would have loved to have done.l”
Sands signed with the Nexen (now Kiwoom) Heroes of the Korean Baseball Organization near the end of the 2018 season. He returned in 2019, when he led the KBO in RBIs with 113 and was fourth in homers with 28.
And the money is much better in Asia than in the minor leagues at home.
“I knew I was getting to that point that I needed to either stick somewhere here or I was going to age out in the States,” he said. “So it was a godsend that I got the chance to come over here at the time that I did.”
Sands said the biggest difference between professional baseball in the United States and Asia is that there are fewer elite players in Japan and Korea than in the major leagues here.
“So it’s just a matter of depth,” he said. “But like I said, they’re very good at what they do (in Asia). They practice like crazy. … Here in Japan, the spring training, running, you hit for five minutes straight at a time and things like that are much different than they are in the States. But you can obviously see how these guys are very good at what they do and how they hone in their craft.”
An even bigger difference between baseball here and in Asia is in the stands, especially in South Korea, where the fans are part of the show.
“The fans are special over here,” he said. “Here they have a loudspeaker. And most teams are sending their cheerleader, and they have like a head cheerleader, which is usually I think almost every team is a male, kind of like an MC hype man. And they have a group of female cheerleaders, and they lead cheers for every player, every situation and, in between innings, they have dances.”
Sands, who has worked as a substitute teacher in the offseason, said he’s not sure what he’ll do when it’s finally time to retire. He’s hoping to play three more seasons after this one, or until he’s 35, but wants to stay around baseball when he’s done.
“I definitely like the experience of working, and I feel like I’ve had a lot of people pour a lot of knowledge into me over the years, on and off the field,” he said. “And I definitely don’t want that to go to waste. So I would love to kind of hand down some stuff to kids and help them through some things that are off the field. So that’s definitely an avenue that I’m thinking about. … It’s one of those things that I’m going to have to figure out quickly once it happens, but I’m trying to kind of live in the moment now and just kind of enjoy the last bit of this ride as it goes on.”JH
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