Two figures stand in a Tucson, Ariz. garage. With a bucket of pinto beans, a mother meticulously tosses a small projectile to her son who nicks each with elite precision while swinging a broom stick. With a nearby clock counting down, the young athlete makes the tiniest error, the slightest misstep in his swing and flails at the legume passing by. The two figures pause as the clock resets; back to five minutes and the drill begins once again.
Ever since he can remember, Donny Sands has been struggling just to scrape by. Now a highly thought of catcher in a deep New York Yankees farm system, he has a greater appreciation for the hard work that both of his parents instilled in him growing up.
"We didn't have a lot when I was young. We were pretty poor; my mom supported me any way she could. At the time, pinto beans were really all we had. At that time, I didn't think much of it as a training method that was just all we had," said Sands of the unique method he practiced daily to hone his hand eye-coordination. "[My mom] would set up a clock for five minutes and she would throw them and if I would miss them the clock would go back to zero and I would have to go five minutes straight without missing one with a broom stick."
The work for the 20-year-old backstop certainly seems to have paid off. Drafted out of high school in in the 8th round by the Yankees in 2015, Sands was considered by many scouts to be the best pure hitter that New York selected that year. In two minor league seasons, the Salpointe Catholic grad has hit .300 with two homers and a .371 on-base percentage over his first 85 professional games heading into 2017. Even more impressively, Sands has shown elite contact ability, only striking out 33 times in 342 minor league plate appearances, good for a 9.6 percent strikeout rate, a skill he attributes at least in part to that drill he went through with his mother, Alma, so many long nights.
"She took it really serious. Sometimes I would just take it as 'ah they're just beans,' but it paid off and I still to this day during the offseason I will do that drill."
Aside from the help of his mother, Sands' love of the game was instilled by his father from a young age. Sands says he remembers his father, Roger who passed away unexpectedly in 2012, playing catch with him as early as he can remember and taking him to a Major-League park for the first time.
Spending time growing up both in Arizona and in his mother's home country, Mexico, Sands honed his skills and started to turn heads. Between his freshman and sophomore years, he committed to play for Arizona State, but it would be his dream come true that would draw him away from the Sun Devils. Growing up with Derek Jeter as his idol, Sands couldn't pass up an offer from the New York Yankees.
"I was at home and my mom was at work. One of the television stations in Tucson did a day in the life type of thing on the draft and followed me around and brought in a bunch of cameras and everything and I got a call in the 7th round. They said they were going to call me before the round started and I didn't get a call so then I was listing and they just said Sands [in the 8th round] and I just freaked out and drove in the car to tell my mom."
Starting out his career in the rookie level Gulf Coast League, Sands fit right in at the plate, slashing .309/.395/.361 in 48 games to earn a late season promotion to Charleston where he spent seven games with the RiverDogs.
"It was honestly like a blur, like did that even happen, said Sands of his first year. "You get that draft card an all of a sudden you're on a plane going to Tampa, Florida. You get there and it's like its re-starting and you have no clue of anybody. The season went by successfully for what I think; I didn't put too much pressure on myself. I thought 'I'm here now' and for me it was like I had been through life, I had been through a lot of stuff so it was just kind of a game, honestly. I feel like I was so happy being there and I put everything I had into it."
With Sands showing he lived up to all the pre-draft hype with his bat, the Yankees told him his future would be best served at a different position. A high school shortstop that had played the hot corner his first season in the pros, Sands put on catcher's gear for the first time.
"I went through half of Captain's Camp [at Spring Training] and then Josh Paul our catching coordinator and Gary Denbo who's the head of operations brought it up for really good reasons and they asked, 'hey we see this, this, and this; you had a really good year at third we don't believe you can get to the bigs at third but it could be huge if you go to catching.' And I mean I bought into it one hundred percent."
Amongst all the change, Sands took it in stride. He committed just two errors in 182 total chances (.989) at catcher while continuing with a solid second season as a hitter (.286/.328/.375, 2 HR, 13 RBI) in the GCL and Pulaski.
How does Sands stay so easy-going amongst all the pressures of pro ball and position changes? For him, it all comes back to the hard work he puts in every day, and the keeping the bigger picture in mind, a mentality instilled from his upbringing and more than a few long nights in his garage with nothing but pinto beans and a broom stick.
"It gives you a perspective on things, like not getting too comfortable in places you are like being in a place here with six thousand fans…You look back to what you have now, it gives you a huge perspective on things and allows you to go out there and give it everything you have. I've put so much work in to this and I'm almost scared to going back."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.