Sights Unseen: Durham Bulls Take Third Straight from Buffalo Bisons

Adam Liberatore

Durham Bulls pitcher Adam Liberatore. Photo by Kate Joyce.

 

“If I tell you all I know, it would be a great story, but I won’t be able to.”

That’s how Durham Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo led off his postgame interview after his team clubbed the Buffalo Bisons, 10-2. Then he smiled that gnomic smile he flashes when he has news or opinions that will get him in trouble if shared. He followed that with one of his tried-and-true near-clichés—one I’ve heard him use countless times before—and then proceeded with his usual unpacking of the game we had just seen.

Ball clubs are run with CIA-level secrecy, so it was no surprise that there was intel out there to which we were not privy. What was unusual, though, was that Montoyo called our attention to what we could not see: to the curtain, if not what was behind it. Yet this is in keeping with this year’s Bull City Summer experience so far. I don’t presume to speak for all of us—writers, photographers, videographers, et al—but I think it’s probably true that the general mood and motor among our team has to do with seeing things new, fresh; with making discoveries and noticing what may be right in the room with us but has somehow escaped our sight. Until now.

I can’t begin to describe what a delight it has been to watch baseball this season. Just to watch it. So many new revelations, so many new fascinations. For example, I’m paying attention to foul balls for the first time ever, which is paying dividends. And not only that, all kinds of things I’ve never seen before on a baseball diamond have occurred this year at Durham Bulls Athletic Park: a triple play; a dreadful injury; a man with only one working eye pitching a baseball.

That last one happened last night. His name is Juan Sandoval, and he’s got a whale of a story. Actually, the main plot point is simple. In February, 2006, Sandoval was having dinner in a restaurant in his hometown of Bonao, D.R. when a scuffle broke out between a security guard and a drunk. Shots were fired, and the crossfire hit Sandoval in the eye. Sandoval survived but lost vision in his right eye, which is discolored to this day.

The decline out of affiliated baseball took a few years, but by 2012 Sandoval was pitching in the Mexican League. In the off-season, he went home to play winter ball. One of his teammates for a while was the Tampa Bay Rays’ relief pitcher Joel Peralta, who is from the same town as Sandoval. Peralta saw Sandoval throwing a ninety-six-mile-an-hour four-seam fastball, a slider, a splitter, and—most notably—a really good two-seamer that generated lots of ground balls.

“Why aren’t you in the States?” Peralta asked Sandoval. Sandoval explained about his eye, explained that there isn’t much scouting in the Mexican Leagues. So Peralta took matters into his own hands. He called Tampa Bay’s general manager, Andrew Friedman. Soon after, Sandoval was signed to a minor-league deal. He started this season in Double-A Montgomery. Sandoval, thirty-two years old, was the oldest pitcher in Double-A except for Roy Oswalt, the former three-time All-Star trying to work his way back into the majors more or less just for the kick of it. A thirty-two-year-old pitcher in Double-A: now there’s a sight you don’t see every day.

Sandoval pitched well for the Montgomery Biscuits. He was the team’s closer, saving twelve games and putting up good numbers, including an absurdly great ground-ball to fly-ball ratio (2.71 ground-ball outs per fly-ball out), albeit not out of line with his general career numbers. That’s what a good two-seamer does—it sinks and hitters beat it into the ground. Yesterday, when the Bulls’ Alex Colome, who was scheduled to start in Durham last night, was called up to the majors, apparently to start in place of the injured Alex Cobb tomorrow (Cobb cut his thumb, poor thing), Sandoval moved up to the Bull City. The Colome promotion probably had something to do with Montoyo’s coyness with us after the game.

So Sandoval came up to Durham yesterday afternoon. The Rays probably intended to push him up to Triple-A pretty quickly, Cobb injury or no. What’s the point of leaving a thirty-two-year-old—a veritable ancient in baseball years—in Double-A any longer than necessary? If he can’t help you soon, he’s probably never going to. Promote! So Sandoval walked into the clubhouse and got this news from Charlie Montoyo: You’re going to start tonight.

The last time Juan Sandoval started a game was in 2007.

Sandoval’s response? “Okay.”

He hadn’t thrown more than forty pitches in a game this year with Montgomery. Last night, he threw fifty-seven, almost getting through the fourth inning. He had not pitched more than two innings in a game this season. And in his longest outing, by far, Sandoval allowed just one run. It scored on—speaking of sights unseen—an inside-the-park home run (!). Buffalo’s Ryan Goins hit it in the third inning. It was a deep fly ball—the first fly ball Sandoval allowed—that Durham center fielder Rich Thompson raced back on but couldn’t quite catch. It bounced high, up off the wall, and then caromed in toward the infield. By the time anyone could chase it down, it was too late. Goins scored rather easily, in fact.

Is Sandoval, a Double-A closer so far, now going to join the Bulls’ starting rotation? No word yet. We talked to him at length after the game. He was unbelievably friendly and upbeat. I got the sense that he would do anything he might be asked: start, close, pinch-run, decant old wine. The guy got shot in the face, took a year before he could pitch again, and now he’s within a step of the major-leagues. He has no peripheral vision to his right side, which is worsened by his delivery to the plate: Sandoval falls off to the left on his follow-through, so there is really nothing he can do about any bunts or other soft hits up the middle or toward third base because he probably can’t see them. A liner near his head could easily send him to the hospital, or worse. (The great baseball writer Steven Goldman, who is also blind in one eye, wrote an excellent column about Sandoval recently.)

Players have to play without fear. What is unseen they are unafraid of. The rest of us live every day as though what’s behind most curtains is, essentially, death. Most of our decisions and plans are made under the threat of this permanent condition. Avoid risk. Protect yourself. Compromise. Save money. We worship baseball players because they put themselves in harm’s way simply for sport, for our enjoyment, and are thus able to live more fully and more deeply by succeeding in the face of death. They are living each moment as though it might be their last. A ninety-mile-an-hour pitch. A screaming line drive back to the mound. Twice over the last two seasons, major-league pitchers have been hit flush on the head by those line drives. You don’t see any pitchers quitting the game because of that. (A former Durham Bull had that happen to him in 2009, when he was a Montgomery Biscuit. He almost died. He’s now in the major leagues.)

Why should Juan Sandoval worry about what might hit him on the mound? He knows what can wound you while you’re minding your own business in a restaurant. But all he wanted to do after the game last night was tell reporters how happy he was to be here, how thankful. He wants to pitch in the majors, where the players hit even harder line drives. This is not some feel-good story. This is about what Lucas Mann calls, in his new book Class A Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, “a monastic life, with fidelity to one thing.” All other sights are unseen because ballplayers must, in order to succeed, make themselves willfully blind to them. In truth, they are probably born that way, a peculiar defect that makes them paradoxically great.

Let me leave you with this good feeling, though, another example of the delight of novelty and unlikelihood that has been regularly visiting me as a Bull City Summerian this season. Durham reliever Adam Liberatore came on for Sandoval in the fourth inning, pitched very well for two and two-thirds innings, and got the win—his first of the season. His final full inning of work was quite something, the likes of which I have never seen before and will probably never see again. In that inning, the sixth, Liberatore threw fifteen pitches. The Bisons swung at only two of them: Mauro Gomez swung and missed at one and fouled off another. Yet Liberatore faced three hitters and got three outs.

This sounds like the beginning of one of those logic questions like you get on the SAT, but it’s not intended here as a quiz. It happened like this: Moises Sierra walked without swinging at a pitch. While Luis Jimenez was at bat, he stole second base. Durham catcher Juan Apodaca’s throw was poor and went into center field. Sierra went to third base, where he slid in safely. But then, no, he was called out for losing contact with the bag momentarily (really momentarily) while Bulls third baseman Vince Belnome was re-tagging him. Sierra was enraged and started screaming at the umpire. His manager, Marty Brown, who was coaching third base and was just a few feet from the play, stepped between them and got himself ejected on Sierra’s behalf.

Jimenez was then called out on strikes, not swinging at any of the four pitches Liberatore threw him. Gomez, too, was called out on strikes to end the inning, after his one swing-and-miss and his one foul ball. He, too, nearly got ejected, disputing the third strike call with the home plate umpire. Fifteen pitches, one walk, a stolen base, an ejection, two strikeouts, and three outs—all on just two swings. Has that much baseball activity ever happened before in a single inning in which batters swung only twice–and didn’t put the ball in play with either swing? I must say, I hope not.

If you’re reading this and it’s before noon today, Thursday, our videographer Ivan Weiss and I will be on WUNC’s “The State of Things” between 12 and 1 p.m. Tune in. And then head out to the ballpark to catch the last of the four-game series between Durham and Buffalo. The Bisons are a sight you won’t see again at the DBAP this year.

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