The 20-year-old pitcher suffered a double skull fracture and a brain hematoma after being hit by a boat propeller while swimming in his native Venezuela.
He’s not even a month removed from being a teenager. He has a wife, a family that loves him and a baseball career that, until a week ago, glistened with unlimited promise.
For the Mariners, Friday is when pitchers and catchers report to Peoria, Ariz., one of the most joyous days of the year for those who love baseball. But this is not the typical spring-training story of hope and redemption.
Not yet, anyway. We can only dream and pray for that ending.
This is the story of Victor Sanchez, a 20-year-old pitcher in the Mariners’ organization. And at the moment, it’s heartbreaking, a somber note of reality puncturing the giddiness of a new season.
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The details are still sketchy, obscured by distance, language barriers and privacy laws. But we know enough to be horrified, as Sanchez lies in a Venezuelan hospital, unconscious and in critical condition after suffering a major head injury last week.
Sanchez apparently was swimming off a beach at Carupano, a city located in Venezuela’s eastern coastline. It was a final carefree outing before heading to Arizona to participate in next week’s minor-league minicamp reserved for the organization’s top prospects.
Somehow, according to published reports, Sanchez was struck by the propeller of a watercraft, suffering a double skull fracture and a brain hematoma. He underwent a craniectomy surgery and is using a breathing tube and ventilator, according to MLB.com.
Thankfully, a few hopeful signs have trickled out in recent days. There were reports Sanchez moved his extremities Tuesday. MLB.com reported Wednesday that a CT scan revealed reduced swelling in the pitcher’s head and neck. He was to be examined by two head-injury specialists Wednesday night and might be transferred to either Caracas or the United States for treatment. Another surgery on his skull is possible.
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said Wednesday they had Sanchez penciled in for some action in major-league games during the Cactus League season. They wanted to take the measure of this rising star, who had fallen out of the organization’s top-10 prospect rankings but still was highly regarded.
“We thought for sure he was going to be a major-league pitcher,’’ Zduriencik said, and paused. “And we still think he will be.”
That addendum was more wistful than anything, because Zduriencik admits they simply don’t know Sanchez’s long-term prognosis.
The organization is monitoring Sanchez’s situation closely. They are in contact with his doctors and have dispatched one of their Venezuelan scouts to the hospital to be with Sanchez and his family. They check his progress several times a day.
“We’re there at every turn,’’ Zduriencik said. “We’re in a position where we have to wait and listen to what the doctors say. There is no diagnosis at all yet. We don’t know any outcome. We don’t know where this will go.”
But here’s what we do know: Sanchez is an extremely well-liked young man who was signed as a 16-year-old in 2011, given a $2.5 million signing bonus that reflected his potential and was sent to the U.S. to begin his career.
I wanted to put a face and a pulse on what so far has been merely a name on the Internet. So I called around. I heard, over and over, words such as “earnest” and “respectful” and “family man.”
I heard a lot of talk about Sanchez’s girth. He is most often compared with Bartolo Colon, which should conjure up a mental image. Pat Dillon, the longtime voice of the Everett AquaSox, remembers seeing an early 2012 roster that had Sanchez listed as 6 feet 1 and 200 pounds. Then he showed up, and Dillon realized it was more like 5-11, 260.
“An unusual body type, and athletic for sure,’’ Dillon said. “He had huge hands. I shook his hand a few times. I don’t think I’ve met many people with hands bigger than Victor. He might be able to get a half-dozen baseballs in one hand.”
They had a couple of nicknames for Sanchez in the Mariners organization. Some called him Ray Lewis, because of his linebacker’s build, and others called him Mike Tyson, for his resemblance to the boxer as well as his relentless attitude.
“He competed his fanny off,’’ said Jim Horner, who managed Sanchez last year with Class AA Jackson. “He’s a phenomenal kid. He hated to lose, and he hated to get hit. That’s the mentality you want. There’s a reason they gave him what they gave him.’’
Eddie Menchaca, who managed Sanchez in 2013 with Class A Clinton, echoed many of those sentiments.
“He didn’t say much; he was really a quiet, reserved kid, but he was really, really smart,’’ Menchaca added. “He was advanced for his age in every aspect. Especially away from the field, in his personal life. It seems like he had a good direction. He had an idea of what he was trying to do with his life and where he wanted to go.”
The youngest player in every league he played, Sanchez thrived as a 17-year-old in Everett, going 6-2 with a 3.18 ERA in 15 starts. The comparisons to another teenager signed out of Venezuela, Felix Hernandez, were inevitable, and every so often Sanchez showed why that may have been apt.
Dillon remembers a road game in Eugene in which Sanchez threw a one-hitter over eight innings. In 2013, with Clinton, Sanchez fired a nine-inning no-hitter — on the very day his mom arrived from Venezuela to see him pitch professionally for the first time. He was 18.
“It was almost like watching a movie,’’ Menchaca recalled. “His mom had never seen him pitch, and, bam, he throws a no-hitter. Really? Man, that just doesn’t happen. It was a great moment not only for him but for us as fans to witness. It kind of signaled, ‘I’m on my way.’ ’’
Last year with Jackson, Sanchez had some early shoulder problems, and he put up a 4.19 ERA in 23 starts. Some wondered if he had regressed, but Horner said that’s nonsense. He pointed to a major-league-caliber changeup – at age 19 – that players in the Southern League would sit on but still could not hit.
“In my book, I had him as a No. 4 or 5 starter because his changeup was so good,’’ Horner said. “His fastball location and changeup were going to get him there. How his other pitches developed, like a slider, would determine whether he stayed and how far he went.”
The Mariners had Sanchez slated for Class AAA Tacoma at some point in 2015, an astounding ascendancy at age 20.
“All the arrows were pointed in the right direction,’’ Zduriencik said. “He was on his way to a nice big-league career. We hope this setback will be temporary.”
Now Sanchez’s future will be determined by doctors and the resilience of the human body, and spirit. For now, his pitching career is a secondary concern. Menchaca recalls talking to Sanchez’s mom, who was crying tears of joy after witnessing the no-hitter. She asked the manager how her son was comporting himself.
“Just great. You’ve raised a great kid,’’ Menchaca assured her in Spanish.
Menchaca says now, “It was short and crisp, but one of those special moments.”
Let’s hope there are many more ahead for Sanchez.