The chances of playing minor league baseball for a team close to where a player grew up are pretty slim. After all, there are 189 different locations a minor league player could be sent to, among all the affiliates of 30 Major League teams. So the fact that Jerry Sands, who attended school just 55 miles away at Smithfield-Selma High School, is a Durham Bull is nothing short of a major coincidence.
Take Sands for example. Selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2008 draft, he's already played for the Ogden Raptors (Ogden, UT), the Great Lakes Loons (Midland, MI), the Chattanooga Lookouts (Chattanooga, TN), the Albuquerque Isotopes (Albuquerque, NM) and the Indianapolis Indians (Indianapolis, IN), along with 70 games with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Rather spread out for someone who's in just his seventh professional season.
But this year Sands, with his fourth organization in three years, for now has a ballpark close to home, as he lives just 40 minutes from the stadium.
"It's been fun being close to home and being here on a daily basis," Sands said. "I've had a lot of friends from high school come, and when we went to Charlotte I had a lot of friends from college come, too."
Although originally born in Middletown, NY, about an hour northwest of New York City, Sands and his family moved to Clayton when he was eight years old.
"Growing up down here was awesome," he said. "In North Carolina you get all the seasons, and that's why my parents moved, they had enough of the snow back north. It was a great childhood. I got to enjoy all the different sports and I'm definitely glad I grew up down here."
One part of Sands' childhood was muddled however, not having a true allegiance to any one college or professional team, despite being in a hot-spot of big-time college sports programs. Instead, Sands rooted for the New York Yankees because his parents were from New York, while also rooting for the Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs for the fact they were on television a lot.
After graduating from Smithfield-Selma in 2008, the path to college was not as clear for Sands as it is for other high-profile athletes. For Sands, he first had to choose between baseball and football, knowing he could pursue a future in either sport. As a free safety and tight end in high school, Sands caught the eye of Elon, Gardner-Webb and Duke, and was also asked to walk-on at NC State. But after looking at the big picture, he found his answer.
"Health was the main reason I opted for baseball," he said. "I knew I'd have a harder battle getting to the pros if I played football. I kind of weighed my options, knew I'd stay a little healthier if I played baseball instead of football, and then I knew I had a little bit better chance to play professionally if I went with baseball. At the end I weighed them and I'm pretty happy with my situation right now."
After earning co-conference Player of the Year honors in baseball with Clayton High School's Chris Archer, Sands found his way to Catawba College where he quickly established himself as one of the country's best Division II players. As a freshman for the Indians, he was named the South Atlantic Conference Freshman of the Year, and was later named a Third-Team All-American. In just three seasons, he set the college career home run record with 61 dingers, while also finishing second in school history with 205 RBIs.
"College ball was fun," Sands said. "(Catawba is) a smaller school which I really enjoyed, and I put up some pretty good numbers. I grew up a lot, mentally and physically, and enjoyed my time. I met a lot of guys and made some lifelong friends."
After his junior season at Catawba, Sands got the call from Los Angeles, as the Dodgers selected him in the 25th round, 757th overall. After a short time of contemplation, Sands opted to sign with the big league club and forego his senior year.
The North Carolina native started off his pro career on a tear, hitting 29 homers in his first two seasons before combining for 35 the next year in 2010 between Single-A Great Lakes and Double-A Chattanooga.
In 2011 it was more of the same, as in his first season at the Triple-A level with Albuquerque he smashed 29 dingers in just 94 games, but it was his hot start that set him apart. After just 10 games to begin the season at Triple-A, the Dodgers had seen enough to call up Sands, who made the trip to Los Angeles on April 18 and registered a double off Tim Hudson in his first career big league at bat.
Sands went on to make two stints with the Dodgers that season, hitting .253 with four homers over 61 games. 2012 was a similar campaign, again tearing through the Pacific Coast League with 26 homers and 107 RBIs, while appearing in just nine games for Los Angeles.
After the 2012 season Sands' future became less certain however, as he was traded by the Dodgers to the Boston Red Sox as a player to be named later in the blockbuster deal that sent Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Nick Punto west. However, his time with the Red Sox was short-lived, as just two months after he was traded to the Red Sox, Boston turned around and dealt him to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The 2013 season marked the first time Sands had really struggled in his career, as he batted just .207 with seven home runs in 106 games for the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians. However, after joining the Tampa Bay system this past December after he was claimed off waivers, Sands has been one of the best hitters in the International League, as he was leading the league in extra-base hits and tied for third in both homers and RBIs through Tuesday.
"Last year I got in a hole and couldn't get out," Sands said. "This year I started swinging the bat well in Puerto Rico and then in Spring Training and I just kind of kept it going."
This year, the slugger has a different outlook, one he attributes to his hot start.
"It's about not letting those down one or two or three games turn into a bad week or two or anything like that. I just have to keep my confidence up and keep swinging the bat, and just concentrate on the bigger picture than the one, two, three days that can turn into a big hole like I did last year."
In addition, Sands made it very clear he's comfortable with not only his new organization, but his new manager as well.
"You come in here and Charlie's definitely a player's manager," he said. "A lot of managers don't let you have a day off but Charlie knows if we have some days off early come around later in the year we'll be able to put our best foot forward. The organization in general just kind of preaches doing the right things and winning baseball games. It's mainly do the big things right and then let your talent show and most of the time you're going to be alright. They feel like they got a good group of guys, a good core to win games it's been enjoyable so far."
Sands has a lot of reasons to enjoy this season. He's playing well, he's playing with confidence and he's got a brand new outlook to accompany his brand new organization. But when it comes down to it for Sands, one thing in particular stands out.
"My parent's house is about an hour from here, I got lots of friends from high school to come out to games. In Charlotte I've had lots of friends from college and people like that come. It's been fun being so close to home and being here on a daily basis."
With the way Sands has been playing, Bulls fans hope that "daily basis" lasts the season.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.