Shawn Sanford could barely believe where he was and what he was doing.
It was 17 months ago, and Sanford was in Scottdale, Ariz. He was throwing off the same pitcher’s mounds as two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum. He was doing the same pitchers’ fielding drills as three-time all-star Matt Cain. He was running the same warning tracks as highly paid Barry Zito.
Heck, he was even going to the same tailor as standout closer Brian Wilson.
Sanford, a right-handed pitcher, was in major league spring training as a nonroster invitee of the San Francisco Giants. He was there because he was supposed to make it to the major leagues one day.
After posting double-digit wins and a sparkling 2.55 ERA, Sanford was named the Pitcher of the Year in the Class A South Atlantic League in 2010. That earned him the spot in San Francisco’s big-league camp in the spring of 2011.
In Scottsdale, Sanford was having the time of his life. He struck up friendships with Giants major leaguers. Wilson, the bearded closer who saved 48 games the previous season, even bought Sanford a custom-made suit.
“The reason you get a nonroster invite to big-league camp is so the pitching coach and manager can put a face to the name, in case they might be seeing you soon,” Sanford explained.
However, in this case, Giants manager Bruce Bochy and pitching coach Dave Righetti have not seen Sanford since that spring. They would have seen him if they had stopped in Washington this summer and watched Sanford pitch for the Wild Things.
Sanford was on the mound for Washington Saturday night and took the loss in a 4-0 setback against the Florence Freedom at Consol Energy Park.
Sanford took a three-hitter into the seventh inning, but rookie Nick Stein hit a three-run homer – his second home run in as many nights – to break the game open for Florence. Jacob Tanis gave the Freedom a 1-0 lead with a home run in the fifth inning.
Yes, the Frontier League is a long way from major leagues. And Sanford’s story is one that shows how a player’s career can take a detour because of one season, one game or one man’s opinion.
Sanford, a New Jersey native and South Florida University product, went on six road trips with the Giants that spring and pitched in one game, throwing a 1-2-3 inning with a strikeout and two groundouts against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“It was an awesome experience,” Sanford said. “Dave Righetti had nothing but good things to say to me. Bochy liked my stuff and demeanor. I thought that I was set at that time.”
Sanford was the opening day starter for the Giants’ high Class A affiliate in San Jose last year. He had a 5-4 record and 4.00 ERA – the latter is considered good in the California League, a notorious hitter’s league with rock-hard infields and small outfields – and was given a promotion. Instead of going to Class AA, Sanford was sent to Class AAA Fresno and put in the starting rotation. He made four starts, but during his stay in Fresno, somebody in the Giants organization thought Sanford might project better as a relief pitcher.
“They liked my stuff, and that I only need 10 pitches to get loose,” said Sanford, who was San Francisco’s 13th round draft pick in 2009.
So Sanford went back to San Jose, worked out of the bullpen and had a rocky transition to pitching on a moment’s notice. Eventually, Sanford became San Jose’s go-to guy in the bullpen and had six wins and two saves.
“The last 30 innings, I gave up only two runs,” he pointed out.
Sanford, however, finished with a 5.15 ERA in Class A, which is not indicative of a highly regarded prospect.
“I still thought there was a small chance the Giants would put me on the 40-man roster,” Sanford said. “I wouldn’t have been surprised if they did.”
The Giants never did put Sanford on the big-league roster, though they did keep him out of last winter’s minor-league version of the Rule 5 draft.
“When they protected me from the Rule 5, I thought I was still a prospect,” he said. “I thought I’d start this year in Class AA in Richmond (Va.).”
So Sanford trudged off to the Giants’ minor-league camp this spring and prepared himself to pitch for a team nicknamed the Flying Squirrels. He was in good shape, did his work and threw his heavy sinker effectively in exhibition games on the back fields of camp.
Sanford, however, wasn’t prepared for what happened next.
“The last day of spring training, I was tapped on the shoulder by the pitching coordinator. He said they were going to release me,” Sanford recalled. “I was shocked. It was surreal. It felt like a funeral. There were tears, and they weren’t all mine. There were some minor-league coaches there who didn’t agree with the decision. It wasn’t unanimous, but somebody had made the decision.
“You go years of your life with the same group of guys, you develop relationships, then it’s over. Before I knew it, I was shaking hands and walking out the door. I realized I had nowhere to go. I had to find a home in independent ball.”
The Wild Things came calling and signed Sanford as a potential ace of their starting rotation. He hasn’t disappointed. Sanford has an 8-5 record and 3.02 ERA. The eight wins are the team high.
The 6-0, 210-pound Sanford was on his way to making the Frontier League All-Star game – he was 5-2 with a 2.56 ERA – until a rough game in early July in the hitter-friendly bandbox of a stadium at Gateway. That night, Sanford gave up eight runs in 1 1/3 innings. It has put a blemish on the season totals, which would be 8-4 with a 2.41 ERA without that one bad night.
Sanford is hopeful of returning to affiliated ball during the offseason. He’s optimistic that the one outing at Gateway doesn’t hurt him the way one bad season in Class A and one scouting director’s opinion did this spring.
“My story this spring was one season. Now, it’s one game. Because of that one game, the numbers are skewed,” Sanford said. “What I’ve learned from this is when you’re given an opportunity, then you have to take advantage of it.
“While my numbers here aren’t fantastic, I’ve made a couple of adjustments that have worked out. I’ve developed a plus-changuep and my ball has a lot of life.”
Sanford knows the odds of making it from the Frontier League to the major leagues are not good, but he comes from a family that has beaten long odds before. In 1996, Sanford’s father, Jimmy, was stricken with cancer and given six months to live. He survived for another 16 years.
“I’m looking for a place in affiliated ball, and it would be great if it was with a team in the National League West,” he continued. “I want just one chance to play a first-hand role in the Giants losing a game and proving that they made a mistake in letting me go. That’s a bold statement, but I’m making it.”