DURHAM — No matter how Jerry Sands plays for the Durham Bulls this season, it’s going to be a very big year for him and his family.
The seventh-year pro out of Smithfield-Selma High and Catawba College drew a hefty media following during the club’s annual pre-season press availability on Wednesday at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
And he had come to the yard from some more important duties at his Wendell home.
“I had to put a crib together this morning,” said Sands, explaining that his wife, Morgan, is 22 weeks pregnant.
The new arrival may be one more in Sands’ family contingent at Bulls games this season, as he said he’s expecting his parents to come over from Johnston County on a regular basis along with his in-laws and occasionally a set of grandparents who live in New Bern.
“I’m sure there’ll be a good crowd,” the slugging 6-foot-4, 220-pound corner man added. “But my family and friends know this is a job. I won’t feel any more pressure. But they know I’m not going to get a hit every time.”
Johnston county folks have become a familiar sight at DBAP over the past couple of seasons, especially when Clayton High grad Chris Archer took the mound.
Back when Sands was a senior at SSS and Archer a junior at Clayton, they were co-conference players of the year in baseball. They also opposed each other on the gridiron.
“It’s been a pretty even battle,” Sands said of their matchups both in high school and pro ball. “The way he’s looking right now I’m glad I’m not facing him any more. We work out at the same place in the off-season, so as soon as I got picked up by the Rays (on waivers from Pittsburgh Dec. 23) I talked to him and he gave me an idea of what’s to come in the organization.
“He’s been one of those assets I’ve called when I needed some pointers. He’s a big part of the organization now. And I think he just got paid a little bit of money (signing a six-year deal for $25.5 million). He’s going to be a stud. He’s looked the best I’ve seen him this spring. He’s throwing the ball pretty well and he’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
Sands, who set Catawba’s career home-run record with 61 before going to the Dodgers in the 25th round in 2008, has had some definite career high points.
He was an all-star in the Pioneer League in 2009 after hitting a grand slam in his first career game. He was a Baseball America Minor League All-Star in 2010, a Dodgers organization all-star in 2011 and a Topps Triple-A All-Star in 2012.
He spent 61 games with the Dodgers in 2011 and nine in 2012, compiling a career Major League average of .244 with four homers and 27 RBI.
But he was traded twice – to Boston and then Pittsburgh – in a three-month period after the 2012 season, and then 2013 was his first really tough season.
Playing for the Indianapolis Indians in Victory Field with its 418-foot power alley in left center, Sands hit .207 with seven homers and 34 RBI in 106 games. He also spent a short rehab stint in the Gulf Coast League.
“I played in a graveyard last year in Indianapolis, so I’m hoping to benefit from playing in a little bit more of a hitters’ park,” Sands said. “I had a terrible season last year. In the spring I just wanted to get down to the basics and get comfortable again.
“Last year I got into a rut and couldn’t get out. And when you start doubting yourself nothing’s going to work. I had a pretty good spring, got my confidence back and started swinging the bat really well. Last season it was just my whole approach. I just had an overall bad year.”
Veteran Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said he thinks the Pirates’ loss may be the Rays’ gain.
“Sands is a Bull-killer, so maybe he does good in this ballpark (for us), too,” said Montoyo, who won the Governors’ Cup last year and has a National Championship and six South Division titles in his eight seasons. “Hopefully he’ll stay on the same page in this ballpark.
“When you first meet a guy you hope he’s a good guy. Well, he’s a good guy. He’s a great kid and a good guy in the clubhouse. And he’s from around here which makes it even better.”
Sands said he’s really looking forward to playing as a Bull. He showed it in Thursday’s home opener when he went 3-for-3 with a home run and a double in a 7-6 Durham victory.
“I’m definitely excited to be here,” Sands said. “It’s a great organization. I knew going into spring training I had a chance to make the team because you always do. But my fallback was coming here to play Triple-A in Durham.
“It’s exciting to be here because of what Charlie does and this organization does every year. It’s going to be nice living about 40 minutes away. The drive’s a little tougher than I expected, but it’s going to be exciting to sleep in my own bed.
“We had to play Durham in the playoffs last year (losing in three straight games.) They go deep every year and it was tough to play them.”