Jio Orozco's South Atlantic League debut will be a moment he will never forget. Pitching in front of a larger crowd than ever before in his career, the Arizona right-hander kept his eyes locked on the familiar face tucked behind a catcher's mask to zone out the 4,158 fans in attendance at The Joe.
Donny Sands, the man behind the mask, and Orozco were once teammates at Salpointe Catholic High School in Tucson, Arizona, and for the first time in their careers, they were now battery mates.
"It's awesome. We've been playing together since we were 14 or 15 years old on travel ball teams in Tucson, and our moms know each other really well," said Sands of the opportunity to reunite with his former Salpointe teammate. "We used to talk about it a lot in high school. We used to say, 'This isn't going to be the last time we play together.' We both really wanted to play pro baseball right out of high school. We always thought 'how cool would it be to one day come back together and try and win a World Series?'"
The path for Orozco and Sands to reunite at first did not seem an obvious one. Each enjoyed successful high school careers at Salpointe, and each had offers to play for big time programs: Orozco to Arizona and Sands to New Mexico. Both had hoped to turn pro sooner rather than later. Sands got the call in the 8th round from New York in the 2015 Amateur Draft, a dream come true for a high school kid who grew up watching Derek Jeter and the Yankees. Orozco would get a similar call in the 14th round, but by the Seattle Mariners.
"[On draft day,] I was at home my mom was at work, one of the television stations in Tuscon did a day in the life type of thing on the draft and followed me around with 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 and I just freaked out and drove in the car to tell my mom," said Sands.
"My parents told me that 'Hey, you should probably go to college, but we think you can obviously compete in the minor leagues,' because I was 17 at the time I got drafted," said Orozco of his draft decision. "They were a little iffy on my age and stuff so they just told me 'whatever you want to do we're fine with it,' so I just chose to go with the Mariners because I wanted to help my mom out and help my dad out with money. I basically put it on that; just giving back to my mom and dad."
Sands spent his first two minor league seasons mostly in rookie ball, hitting .300 with two homers in his first 85 professional games. While he found success at the plate, the Yankees saw a better future for him as a catcher. Sands honed his skills in rookie ball in 2016, putting on catcher's gear for the first time. But as Sands prepared to work with a talented crop of Yankees pitching in the minors, little did he know that one day one of those pitchers would be his former Salpointe teammate.
"I was at Safeway cashing a check, and the Director of Player Development called me and said 'Hey Jio, we've got good news for you. I feel like it's going to be good for you, but we just traded you to the Yankees for Ben Gamel.' So I went to the field and my manager looked at me and said 'did you hear? You just got traded.' So I said 'alright, cool.' It was a new opportunity and I was excited."
Soon after hearing about the trade on August 31, Orozco's old teammate gave him a call and thoughts of the two teammates playing together as pros started to creep into their minds.
But the two were reunited the following season both being assigned to Charleston. While Jio faced pressure in his first game as a Yankees farmhand, having Sands behind the plate put him at ease.
"It was crazy because we both got drafted in the same year out of the same school which almost never happens, especially in Tucscon where there's not that much talent up there. Then him coming here and catching for me, he's seen me pitch, he knows my style, he knows how I like to roll, and every pitch he calls, it's what I want. He's one of the better catchers I've ever had catching for me."
Tethered by a strict pitch count, Orozco threw well in his first Class A start. Reaching 69 pitches, Jio went four innings allowing just a run while racking up six strikeouts to just one walk.
"I've been saying it since we were in high school; Jio has big league stuff. I mean high-end fastball, big league curveball, big league changeup," says Sands. "I mean, everybody on our stuff is big league stuff and he's right there."
Only seven players out of Salpointe Catholic High School has ever played professional baseball according to Baseball Reference's player index, including the pair of former Lancers on this year's RiverDogs squad. Only two have ever made the Bigs, Mark Carreon and Ed Vosberg.
Baseball is still a kid's game, and both of the Tucson, Arizona natives couldn't be more thrilled to reunite as friends and teammates in Charleston this season. And while there's been a lot of hard work to get where they are, Sands says there was plenty of time for fun the game on the way too.
"I don't know if he'll even remember this, but we had this tournament back in our junior year [of high school] in Memphis, Tennessee. We got a hotel room and our coach put us together and I think we destroyed this hotel room. The coach was going to come check and we had no clue he was going to come check in on us, and it was full of spitballs from us shooting spitballs at each other, and it was bad but it turned out to be a funny story later."
But rest assured, the hotel patrons of the South Atlantic League don't have to worry. "There will be none of that here," Sands chuckles. "That was a long time ago."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.