'You've got to find a way': Tigers' Donny Sands continues to clear obstacles, defy odds

Chris McCosky, The Detroit News on

Published in Baseball

DETROIT — Donny Sands was 15 years old when his father died. It was New Year’s Day, 2012. Roger Sands, who served in special operations for the United States Army, was 50 and suddenly his heart stopped.

The man who taught Donny how to throw and catch and hit a baseball, the man who would put 5-year-old Donny through two-a-day workouts on sunbaked fields in Tucson, Arizona, and later in Albuquerque, New Mexico — “Baseball was like boot camp and I wanted more and more.” — the man who coached him in little league, the man who drove him to University of New Mexico baseball games where he was a bat boy along with Alex Bregman, the man he celebrated a regional championship with at age 10, the man to whom he vowed he’d be a professional baseball player one day was gone.

“Mom,” Donny said to his mother Alma the next day, “I’ve got to get to a ball field.”

We don’t often get to know what burns inside these players, what drives them. With Sands, though — the 26-year-old catcher the Tigers acquired from the Phillies along with Matt Vierling and Nick Maton for Gregory Soto and Kody Clemens — he wears his competitive fire on his sleeve.

More accurately, on his glove. He has his mother’s name, Alma Sands, inscribed on every catcher’s glove he owns.

“Everything I do, I do for her,” he said.


A year after his father died, Alma had to go back to her native Mexico to work, even though she knew she’d have to leave Donny behind. Her brother had a dental practice there and he offered her a job. But she knew Donny, who was in high school and drawing interest from big-league scouts, needed to continue his life in Tucson.

With his father and mother gone, though, and money tight, Donny Sands was essentially homeless.

“Yeah, I lived out of my (2006) Toyota Camry,” he said. “Looking back, I’ve never been a person that asked for help. Maybe that’s because of how my dad was with me. Like, you figure it out. I know people got their own stuff going on in their lives and their own problems. And I was like, I don’t want to bother nobody. I will just do it on my own.”

Eventually, his friends and coaches figured out what was going on and Sands was offered houses to stay in and couches to sleep on. And there was Vic Acuna. A few years before he died, Roger Sands had entrusted Donny’s baseball development to Acuna.


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