Oh, baby! Gary Sanchez owes August for the ages to hard work, maturity -- and his daughter, Sarah

ByAndrew Marchand ESPN logo
Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Gary Sanchez threw a tantrum. It was typical kid stuff as he pouted and refused to do his chores.

Five years ago, Sanchez declined to warm up a reliever after not starting a second straight minor league game in favor of a fellow catching prospectJohn Ryan Murphy. The New York Yankees sent the 18-year-old Sanchez packing.

They demoted Sanchez from Class-A Charleston to their Tampa spring training facility for a 10-day timeout. It looked like the kid with the $3 million signing bonus might have an attitude worth nothing.

"He needed to understand that he had preparation details that needed to be more consistent," said Mark Newman, former Yankees vice president of player development.

While Sanchez's explosion onto the major league scene this season -- during which he hit 11 home runs in 95 at-bats in August -- might have felt like it happened in a snap, it was a tedious climb.

Before a 16-year-old Sanchez signed with the Yankees in 2009, his baseball story began in the unpaved streets of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, where he was a kid searching for doll heads so he and his brother could spend all day swinging at them with a broomstick bat.

As he grew up in the Yankees organization, he, like many teenagers, was petulant. Sanchez was dealing with the loneliness of a new culture and a new language, while at the same time learning how to be a professional baseball player.

The Yankees pushed, pulled and coddled Sanchez as he grew from a teenager to a young man, but the biggest development in his transition from a potential bust to a potential All-Star was his baby daughter, who, in his words, "began a new life for me."

Two years after his daughter was born and five years after his demotion from A-ball, Sanchez speaks with a lot more maturity.

"The way I look at it is, you learn from your mistakes and you move forward," Sanchez, 23, said through the team's translator, Marlon Abreu.

To fully understand and appreciate the Summer of Sanchez, in which he stripped a seven-time All-Star, Brian McCann, of his job and hit home runs at a record pace in winning the AL Player of the Month in his August for the ages, his first real foray into the big leagues, you must look back to where Sanchez came from and learn how he has grown up over the past seven years.

The search for Sanchez

Donny Rowland is the Yankees' director of international scouting. A standout at the University of Miami in the mid-1980s, Rowland reached as high as Triple-A as a pro. For nearly three decades, he has been a scout.

His job keeps him on the road for somewhere between 225 and 250 days a year, all in an effort to find young jewels that one day might make it to the Bronx. He must project how kids will do as men. Rowland was the Yankees' international point man in their pursuit of Sanchez.

The Dominican scouting game runs through buscones -- street agents. It is, in Rowland's words, a "rat race" to find, research and acquire talent, with all 30 teams mining for gems in the baseball-crazed land.

The Yankees' area scouts, Victor Mata and Ray Sanchez, had strong relationships with the buscones. While Rowland is quick to point out, "there are no secrets in international waters," the earlier you can begin to evaluate a player, the better read you can get on him. Gary Sanchez was 14 when the Yankees first heard his name.

While baseball is a way of life in the Dominican, it is also a lifeline, which makes evaluating young players very difficult. Playing in the American major leagues is like hitting the Powerball, and some families will do anything to grab that golden ticket.

Many young Dominicans don't as much play baseball as they train for major league tryouts, attempting to display tools that could be worth hundreds of thousands in many cases, and millions in some. The lure to use steroids to fool major league scouts is understandable.

Rowland said one of the first red flags is a kid's physicality -- but that wasn't a problem with Sanchez.

"It was natural strength," Rowland said. "There was no doubt about the fact it was natural."

There was also talent, honed crushing those decapitated doll heads with his older brother, Miguel, who would spend time in the Seattle Mariners organization.

Before Sanchez signed with the Yankees, Newman set a challenge for the then-15-year-old. Newman can't remember exactly what he offered as a prize for success, but it was a lunch out or a bat or something else nominal. To win, Sanchez needed to hit a home run to right, center and left in 10 swings or fewer. It took Sanchez four swings, Newman said.

Offering a teenager a meal or a bat in exchange for performance is one thing, but offering $3 million is quite another. The deal is not made lightly. The decision must be approved at multiple levels, and in this case it began with Newman, Rowland, Mata and scout Gordon Blakeley putting together their 2009 Dominican board.

The other top player in the class was Miguel Sano. The Yankees debated Sanchez vs. Sano as if it were Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf -- who would they take first if there were a draft? Yankees GM Brian Cashman flew down to the Dominican in February 2009 to watch Sanchez work out and put his final stamp of approval on his lieutenants' recommendation.

Though the Yankees would offer both Sanchez and Sano contracts, Sanchez was the top player on their board. The Yankees valued the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Sanchez three times more than they did Sano.

They gave Sanchez a $3 million bonus, while, according to Cashman's recollection, offering Sano a million bucks. Sano signed with the Minnesota Twins for $3.25 million. He finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting in 2015.

The Yankees bet on Sanchez's potential.

"He was a big strong guy that our guys clearly thought that the bat was the calling card, but the athleticism on the catching side [was enough] that he would stay at that position," Cashman said. "That was the big question mark industry-wide: 'Can he stay behind the plate as big as he is?'"

'He couldn't catch a fastball down the middle'

While $3 million is a wonderful Sweet 16 present, life for a Dominican prospect isn't easy. Besides shouldering the weight of the franchise's expectations, players usually arrive in the States knowing little or no English, which makes simple tasks like ordering food at a restaurant or paying bills difficult. The loneliness of being a teenager in a foreign land can be crushing.

In the meantime, you have to perform on a baseball field and act professionally, while also handling the added pressure of social media, websites and media outlets that cover your daily progress, and dealing with typical teenage angst.

In 2010, when he arrived at his first minor league outpost in short-season ball at Staten Island, Sanchez's attitude did not match his talent.

"It was probably the same as any junior in high school," said Josh Paul, manager of the 2010 Staten Island Yankees.

Paul played parts of nine seasons in the major leagues as a backup catcher, bouncing around with four teams, before his career ended in 2007. He knew what he was looking at when Sanchez was behind the plate. What he saw lacked polish.

"He couldn't catch a fastball down the middle," Paul said. "He was not a good catcher back then."

He was also extremely lonely. While he took mandatory English classes with the rest of his Latino teammates following games, the language was slow to come.

"It was very tough," the somewhat shy Sanchez said.

At the same time, Sanchez was gaining a reputation for going through the motions. It would stick with him for years. Newman, who looks at Sanchez almost as a son, talked to him on a "zillion" occasions.

His managers and coaches were all in his ear. The Yankees tried everything to help Sanchez understand the opportunity he had and fulfill the franchise's hopes for him.

"We pulled him from the lineup or benched him," Cashman said. "We explained why. He was someone who could always hit, who could roll out of bed and hit. He wasn't necessarily in the best shape early in his career and he wasn't necessarily putting himself in the best position to be the best he could possibly be."

It's not that Sanchez didn't know hard work. He grew up in a small community in Santo Domingo called La Victoria. With his parents separated, his beloved mother, Orquidia Herrera, and grandmother, Agustina Pena, raised him, his three brothers and his sister. Sanchez's father lived nearby and Gary saw him regularly.

He watched his mother take multiple shifts per day, some of them overnight, as a nurse, working to provide food and shelter for the family. Still, as a teenager in a professional environment, Sanchez said he was not ready to match his mother's work ethic.

"When I was young, I would go to the gym, but I didn't really know why I was doing it, how I was supposed to do it," Sanchez said. "It takes time to become a pro, to train to become a pro."

'When she was born ... a new life began for me'

The Yankees kept working with Sanchez, but, like many young people, it took time before the advice began to click. There were still episodes -- some small, some big.

In 2013, former major leaguer Marcus Thames was Sanchez's hitting coach at Class-A Tampa. Still just 20, Sanchez was not taking batting practice seriously.

Instead of doing the work, he was trying to launch high home runs -- the kind that could throw off his swing. Thames told him, "That does nothing for you," emphasizing that he hit line drives, instead, to prepare for games.

In June, 2014, at Double-A Trenton, Sanchez was suspended for five games for undisclosed team rule violations. At that point, he was 21 and had been mentored by just about everyone in the organization, but he still didn't fully get it.

The Yankees tried to add positive influences whenever they could. Sanchez's minor league roommate was Francisco Arcia, a Venezuelan catcher known for having the right attitude.

Arcia, three years older than Sanchez, stood by his roommate through the rough times. When speaking with Arcia, you can hear his genuine affection for his friend. When everything changed for Sanchez, Arcia was there.

"When he got the baby, that changed his life," said Arcia, who left the Yankees' organization this winter and is now with the Marlins' Triple-A affiliate in New Orleans. "He thought about what he has to do."

When Sanchez and his wife, Sahaira, had their daughter, Sarah, two years ago, inspiration was born with her.

"It is a beautiful experience to become a dad," Sanchez said. "It is kind of like once you become a dad, that's your all and you want to make sure you can provide everything she needs. It was very important because, when she was born, it was kind of like a new life began for me because it is a lot of responsibility, so you want to make sure that you can give it your all so you can get to the big leagues and you can stay in the big leagues and, definitely, it is a changing experience."

It was more than Sarah that changed Sanchez's attitude, though. Part of it was simply growing up. As he turned 22 and 23, he better realized what was possible.

"It was a basically a combination of becoming a dad and a personal goal of mine to find a better routine, just a better way of achieving what I wanted, which was to get to the big leagues," Sanchez said. "It was a combination of everything that helped me find a way that I could be better off the field and on the field."

'Don't take the food off your baby's tongue'

Paul, Sanchez's manager at Staten Island, became the Yankees' catching coordinator in 2015. In spring training that year, he asked Sanchez to fully commit to the work required to become a major league catcher. Sanchez said he would, and he finally meant it.

On the hitting side, Thames would inspire Sanchez by telling him, "Don't take the food off your baby's tongue by being lazy."

Everything started to stick for Sanchez. By the middle of that 2015 season, Paul saw a different person and player than the raw 16-year-old Sanchez had once been.

"I've never seen anyone work harder on a baseball field," Paul said. "It's a pretty amazing story, actually."

Paul tells a tale from last year in which Sanchez caught every frame of an 18-inning Double-A game, but still was in the weight room postgame to do his extra work. The tedious stuff that many young catchers have trouble focusing on were now on Sanchez's daily checklist.

"That is the buy-in that he had, he understood that his defense was much more important than his offense," Paul said. "He accepted that and worked to that end. What I saw in 2015, especially the first couple of months of the season, offensively he was struggling, but he didn't take any of those at-bats behind the plate. He went back there, worked his butt off and was there to support his pitchers and learn how to separate his offense from his defense. By putting his defense first, he was putting his team first. That's the kind of catcher we are all looking for. He is growing into a true team leader."

Sanchez could always hit. He'll probably be an above-average hitting catcher during his career, even though he may never match what he did in August with 11 home runs and a 1.290 OPS in 24 games. Despite all that success at the plate, Sanchez's defense is what truly has Yankees officials -- from Paul to manager Joe Girardi -- excited.

"When I watch the games now, I like his defense better than his bat," Paul said. "I'm probably biased. I'm seeing a guy who is blocking the balls the right way, blocking balls in the dirt with energy, who is calling a real good game and he, in my opinion, is on his way to becoming a premier catcher with a really good bat on top of it."

After trading last year's backup catcher, Ryan, over the winter, Cashman famously said the Yankees were going to "unleash the Kraken" by giving Sanchez a shot.

With the inside track on the backup job in spring training, Sanchez struggled, going 2-for-22 and losing the job to Austin Romine. He handled the setback well and went back to work at Triple-A, finally earning his opportunity in the bigs.

Cashman is proud, too, of the way Sanchez has learned English. The Yankees GM had told him as a youngster that if he were going to handle a major league staff, he needed to learn the language. While Sanchez is not comfortable enough yet to speak to the media in English, he communicates well with his teammates, Cashman said.

If there is one takeaway from Sanchez's rise, it's that he does things at his own pace. So when will he speak English to the media and fans, helping them get to know him a little bit better?

"When I'm ready," Sanchez said in Spanish, a slight shy smile spreading across his face.

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