Outfielder Jerry Sands is quietly having one of the best seasons in the Indians organization. How is he doing it? Hard work, consistency, and sweet potatoes?
Sands grew up in Smithfield, North Carolina, a small town in Johnston County, which is the #1 producer of sweet potatoes in the United States. Each spring, the community puts on the Ham & Yam Festival, a celebration of the best ham and yams in the area.
“I think I went just a few times when I was younger,” Sands said with a laugh. “They shut down a small section of one of the streets in Smithfield and had vendors from everywhere. Live music and different things. It was a good time and is definitely a big thing around there.”
The Yankees were Sands’ favorite team growing up. In North Carolina, this was viewed as rooting for the enemy.
“In North Carolina the Braves are the team that everybody cheers for since they are the closest one,” Sands said. “But I was a big Yankees fan growing up. At that time in the ‘90s they were obviously pretty good.”
Ironically, his favorite player didn’t wear pinstripes.
“I was a big Vladimir Guerrero fan,” Sands said. “All-out, didn’t really do anything flashy, but he could hit any pitch at any time and had a really good arm. I enjoyed watching him.”
Sands played his college ball at Catawba College, in Salisbury, North Carolina, two and a half hours west of Smithfield. He was a business administration major, three year starter, and the school’s all-time home run run leader (61 in 173 games) before the Dodgers drafted him in the 25th round of the 2008 MLB Draft. Sands remembers draft day like it was yesterday.
“I was playing summer ball in the coastal plain league and the coach gave me the two days off,” Sands said. “I thought I was going to go higher than I did and ended up waiting until the 25th round. My dad and I got in a car and drove from our house to Florence, South Carolina so I could play that night because I wasn’t sure if I was going to get signed or not. It was hectic.”
In 2010, Sands was named player of the game in the Class-A Midwest League All-Star Game. Immediately after the game he was promoted to the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts, where he hit .270 with 17 homers and 47 RBI in 68 games. Sands was later named the Dodgers minor league player of the year.
“I wasn’t really sure what my approach was going to be when I got up there,” Sands said. “Do I swing or do I take? Right before I went up, James Loney told me if it’s there just go ahead and swing and get the jitters out of the way.”
Sands took Loney’s advice and hacked at the first pitch.
“I jammed it, double down the right field line in Dodger Stadium. It was a special moment.”
“I’m going to remember both of them forever.”
Sands spent most of the 2012 season in Triple-A with the Albuquerque Isotopes, where he hit .296 with 26 homers and 107 RBI in 119 games and was selected as the designated hitter on the post-season All-PCL All-Star team.
On October 4, Sands and Rubby De La Rosa were traded to the Boston Red Sox to complete the deal that brought Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Nick Punto to the Dodgers. In December, the Red Sox traded Sands along with three others to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Brock Holt and Joel Hanrahan.
He spent the entire 2013 season in Triple-A with the Indianapolis Indians and hit just .207 with seven home runs. Sands was designated for assignment by the Pirates in December and later claimed off waivers by Tampa Bay. He played most of the year with the Durham Bulls, where he hit .268 with nine home runs and 36 RBIs. In 12 games with the Rays, he hit .190 with one home run and four RBI.
Sands elected for free agency and signed a minor league contract with the Indians in December. The Indians purchased his contract on April 10 and added him to the active roster. Sands became an instant fan favorite with clutch hits against the Tigers and Mariners. He was designated for assignment on April 29 and called back up by the Indians on May 28. In his first at bat, he hit a two-run home run, and was sent down to Columbus the next day.
In 27 plate appearances scattered over two short stints with the Tribe this year, Sands is hitting .375 (9-24) with one home run, two doubles, six RBI, three runs, and three walks.
Sands hasn’t slowed down at the plate in Columbus, where he’s hitting .278 with a team leading 14 home runs to go along with 45 RBI. He’s one of four batters in the International League with more walks than strikeouts. His 16.2 percent walk rate ranks first.
“I’ve just kind of refined some things,” Sands said. “I’ve been working on my swing the last couple of years just getting a little bit more consistent with it.”
“Knowing where I am in the lineup. We had Aggie [Aguilar] and Lonnie and then me. Knowing that those guys are going to be on base a lot. Knowing situations I’m going to get pitches and when I’m not. And then staying aggressive when I need to and not missing them is my main thing. Just trying to stay consistent as possible.”
With the first half of play in the books, what are Sands’ goals for the remainder of the season?
“Getting this team to the playoffs,” Sands said without hesitation.
The Clippers (57-45) are in the thick of the playoff race, trailing the West Division leading Indianapolis Indians by one game.
“Individually, I’d like to finish on a good note. Hopefully, get another chance up with the Indians. This organization’s been good to me this year and I think I’ve played pretty well so hopefully I’ll get a shot there, but I’m here now so hopefully get this team some wins and make the playoffs and make a pretty good run.”
Photo credit: Eric Sprague / Columbus Clippers