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Mariners / MLB

Friday, February 23, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Shotgun blast ruins eye, but M's prospect returns

Seattle Times staff reporter

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Counting the bounces of ground balls hit his way is something Juan Sandoval would have scoffed at a year ago.

"One, two, three ... glove!"

That stuff was for little kids . Certainly not for him, a professional pitcher and rising prospect hoping for a promotion to Class AAA by the Mariners.

But that all changed Feb. 4, 2006, when Sandoval was dining at a restaurant in his Dominican Republic hometown of Bonao. There was a nearby argument between the restaurant's bouncer and a drunken man. The man left, but returned moments later with a shotgun. Sandoval heard the gun's pump-action, turned to see what was happening and took a blast to the upper torso and face.

Three of the shotgun pellets lodged in his right eye, leaving it permanently blind.

Nearly a full year, a pair of surgeries, two visits to a retinal specialist in Seattle and plenty of guts later, the 26-year-old is on a field here with the Mariners as a non-roster invitee to spring training. He's learned to pitch and field his position with only one eye, using tips like "one, two, three ... glove!" to gauge the speed and closeness of grounders and compensate for his lost depth perception.

Mariners camp highlights


Daily highlight: Manager Mike Hargrove revealed portions of his preferred batting order, saying he wants Adrian Beltre to hit second, while indicating Jose Guillen, Jose Vidro and Kenji Johjima would likely be bumped back down to someplace between Nos. 5 through 7 in the order.

Injury report: RHP Mark Lowe still had yet to be told results of his MRI exam and the team didn't expect any news until today.

Weather report: Sunny, high of 74.

Quotable: "Superman last year would have had trouble taking the role away from Putz." -- Hargrove telling a Washington Post reporter that traded M's pitcher Emiliano Fruto had no chance at beating out J.J. Putz for the Seattle closer's job in 2006.

New face: 2B Jose Lopez finally joined his teammates for some hitting and looked decent swinging the bat, but has yet to be cleared to start taking ground balls.

Geoff Baker

Sandoval has improved his fielding to the point where he no longer has to count the bounces, only his blessings.

"When I got shot, I didn't know if I was going to keep playing baseball, keep my eye, or lose my vision," says Sandoval, whose carefree smile conceals just how much he's gone through. "I was just lucky to be alive. That was the only thing I cared about."

"One, two, three ... glove!"

The words are a reminder to Sandoval of where he's been and how far he's come.

"I don't like to be around a lot of people now," he says. "Especially when I'm back home and I go out somewhere. If I go to a restaurant to eat, I like only a few people to be there. I don't want to go where it's crowded, where something can happen."

He recalls the fear that gripped him as the pellets struck his face, causing him to leap from the table where he'd been sitting with his girlfriend, Elisa, and her aunt and uncle.

They too, were slightly hit, but suffered minor injuries. Sandoval could feel blood gushing down his face and remembers grabbing a restaurant patron in a panic and screaming: "Is my eye still there? Is my eye still there?"

Sandoval was rushed to a local hospital. Three days later, he had surgery to take the pellets out of the eye -- arranged by the Mariners -- in a better-equipped facility in the capital of Santo Domingo.

"They also cleaned it, got the blood out of there and did all they could to make it look normal," he says. "The doctors told me that if I'd waited another day, I would have lost the eyeball."

Only a slight reddish tinge remains, a hint at the trauma his eye sustained.

But saving it permanently, after the first surgery, meant spending three weeks in a darkened area of his parents' home to avoid the sun's glare. It meant having his meals spoon-fed to him in order to keep his head upright so that the eye wouldn't shut tight.

It took three months for his eye to strengthen, completely open and be free of swelling.

Sandoval underwent more surgery on July 17 to have a dose of silicone implanted in the eye to prevent the eyelid from forcing itself closed. Though it now looks almost completely normal again, his tear duct is dried up and the eye is dead from a vision standpoint.

Baseball had been an afterthought.

"It was a long time before I could even try to play again," Sandoval said. "But I love baseball. I wanted to try to play again."

In October, he began playing catch from a distance of only five feet at a stadium in his hometown.

"It was really strange," he said. "I couldn't tell how deep the background was. I had to keep my glove right up near my face. "

Sandoval later headed to the nearby Mariners training complex in a compound behind the home of fabled super-scout Epy Guerrero. He took ground balls with other players, did some running and threw bullpen sessions -- not yet medically cleared to pitch.

"He had to re-learn everything," said Mariners head trainer Rick Griffin. "He'd completely lost his depth perception. He lost the ability to catch and judge a ball coming toward him on the mound. He had to re-learn balance."

The biggest concern, one that remains to this day, was how well he'd field comebackers to the mound.

"I had trouble judging the distance of the ball, so [pitching coach Manuel Marrero] told me to count the bounces," Sandoval said. "So, I would count, 'One, two, three ... ' and the ball would go into my glove."

Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi saw Sandoval throw a bullpen session during an early December trip to the Dominican Republic. Sandoval later told Bavasi he'd like the opportunity to attend big-league camp.

"We had already made an internal decision that we'd invite him if he got medical clearance to pitch," Bavasi said. "He was very eager and seemed ready to give it a try."

"One, two, three ... glove!"

Sandoval has tried to put those words and the past behind him. He takes pride in how he did regular, on-field workouts with other players during his recovery. He never asked for special treatment and doesn't want any.

The man who shot him claimed the gun went off accidentally. He was dirt poor, with a wife and family and had spent a week in jail when Sandoval finally talked to the police.

"I told them I didn't want to press charges, so they let him go," he said. "He was very poor and he made a mistake. Having him in jail wasn't going to change anything for me."

Sandoval used to run his fastball into the low 90s, with a smooth, loose delivery. He was 9-11 with a 4.03 earned-run average for Class AA San Antonio in 2005, but needed to resolve some control issues.

Like the rest of his recent past, though, none of that matters now. Out here, it truly is a new beginning for a pitcher keeping his remaining eye focused straight ahead.

"I'm just very happy to be here right now, in my first big-league camp," he said. "I know how lucky I am to be here and I'm going to do my best. I do everything like the other players now. I'm no different than they are."

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or gbaker@seattletimes.com

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