“Here, here it is,” Sanchez added, his English coated by a Venezuelan accent, as he pointed to a list of seasons that didn’t fit on one screen. “You forgot my 101 games in the Dominican Summer League, 10 years ago. You can’t forget those.”
Because he was there, for every single one, for 994 heading into this year and six since with the Class AA Harrisburg Senators. After going 2 for 4 for the Senators on Sunday, Sanchez has played in 1,000 minor league games with the same organization. The Nationals signed him in the winter of 2007 as a 17-year-old shortstop, and he is the franchise’s second-longest-tenured player behind first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. That surprised him. Time can be a funny thing.
Sanchez, 28, has played in just 62 major league games across two seasons. The utility infielder was up earlier this year before heading back into the system, his life a series of back and forths, of odd-hour plane rides, of phone calls commanding him to pack immediately. He has played 156 games in Syracuse, N.Y., 256 in Harrisburg, Pa., 269 in Woodbridge, Va., 156 in Hagerstown, Md., and so on. No one is more familiar with the highway routes, the bus seats, the nuances of the Nationals’ affiliates, from the Gulf Coast League to Class AAA.
He is what’s called a “AAAA player” — forever stuck between the top rungs of the minors and his ultimate dream — but he has a distinction from many others. Most career minor leaguers bounce from one team to the next, searching for a fit, seeing whether a change of scenery may lead to a change in luck. Brandon Snyder, a 32-year-old infielder in the Nationals’ system, has played 1,202 minor league games spread across the systems of the Baltimore Orioles, Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and Atlanta Braves. Sanchez, however, believes his past with Washington is the foundation for a future there. He has made the most appearances in the Nationals’ system and, still, can feel the goal inching closer. At least that’s what he keeps telling himself.
One thousand minor league games isn’t incredibly rare. Playing them for one franchise is.
“Every organization needs a guy like Adrián Sanchez,” said Mark Scialabba, the Nationals’ director of player development. “He won’t quit, won’t stop pushing the major league coaches to give him an opportunity, and is always available to do whatever is needed. It’s a great message to every other player here. It’s inspiring in its own way.”
A trip worth taking
Mike Rizzo and Dana Brown had never traveled to Venezuela together. Maybe that’s why their plans were so jumbled and hectic 12 winters ago.
Rizzo, then an assistant general manager for the Nationals, flew from Washington to Newark to meet Brown, then the Nationals’ scouting director. They boarded a discounted flight to Panama. Then another flight to Maracaibo, Venezuela. Then a third flight, on a tiny plane, to a tiny town where a handful of teenagers waited to be seen.
Brown is now the Atlanta Braves’ director of scouting. Rizzo is Washington’s general manager. Whenever they see each other, if their nonstop schedules intersect, they laugh about that 2007 trip to a small Venezuelan stadium at the edge of unending countryside. And not just because of how long it took, how tired they were or how much scouting they packed into a few days, but because of the two players they discovered once there.
“Any time you go to a place like that, and you’re trusting someone else’s word, you worry about the hassle not being worth it,” Rizzo said. “But we signed two players out of one workout who would play in the major leagues. That never happens. The trip paid for itself.”
One was a catcher named Sandy Leon, sturdy, strong, signed to Washington before he played in two seasons there and four more with the Boston Red Sox. The other was Sanchez, a stringy shortstop with a quick bat and soft hands in the field.
Sanchez laughs looking back, because he had no clue who Brown or Rizzo were, how much rode on those drills, how each of his swings and throws were being processed through a scouting shredder. Brown liked Sanchez’s arm strength and “sneaky offensive pop.” Scialabba, who processed the two contracts back in Washington, remembers the Nationals thinking Sanchez could win a minor league batting title down the line.
A system isn’t just filled with blue-chip prospects. Sanchez was the kind of low-cost, high-upside, versatile player who was needed and may make it once he developed and aged. Their agreement that January day, sealed with a round of handshakes, was only the start of a bigger commitment.
“It’s pretty damn cool that he’s still trying to break in with the Nationals,” Brown said last week. “But I don’t know if I’d even recognize him now. It’s been so long.”
Sometimes you 'feel like you are stuck’
There has been doubt, a lot of it, whenever the majors slip away again and the constant shuffle feels pointless.
There was that time last year, in mid-August, when Sanchez, his wife, Dariela, and their young daughter, Sara, drove from Syracuse to Washington through a heavy rainstorm. The Nationals had traded Daniel Murphy to the Chicago Cubs, so Sanchez was needed for that night’s game, as an extra, as insurance in case Wilmer Difo got hurt. That was it. He is used to scrambling for stuff like that.
Or there was earlier this season, at the start of April, when Sanchez flew to Fresno, Calif., spent two days there and then took an overnight flight to D.C. because Trea Turner broke his right index finger. He didn’t even know what day of the week it was when he got to the home clubhouse at Nationals Park. Sanchez was with the team for five days before Washington needed a reliever, Joe Ross was called up, and he was sent down to Harrisburg. He hadn’t played in a game.
“We’ll see you soon, Sanchie,” Nationals bench coach Chip Hale said two Sundays ago, on the visiting side of Citi Field, hugging Sanchez after he had heard of his next destination.
“I know you will,” Sanchez said with a smile. “Oh, I know.”
So why keep going? Why ready for Game 1,001, with the Senators in Altoona, Pa., on Monday, with the same energy he has had for each before it? Why keep re-signing with the Nationals, on cheap successor deals before hitting free agency, when opportunity has been slim?
Sanchez has considered quitting, more than once, but there is always a draw back to the field. And none is stronger than Sara, born in September 2016, the fall before he was invited to his first major league camp. It took him 10 years to even get there, in a spot to get noticed, and he wants Sara to know he did everything he could after his career is finished. He also wants to mentor young Latin players, to tell them to save the little money they make in the minors, to take care of themselves once they’re mixed into a new country, then into a sea of guys competing on the same mission.
He plays shortstop, second, third, first and even left field. But he knows the Nationals have a franchise shortstop in Turner, two top prospects in the middle infield (Carter Kieboom and Luis Garcia) and Difo, the utility player they favor over him because he can switch-hit and is sharper in the field. Sanchez values his role as a husband, a father, a relied-upon depth option for Manager Dave Martinez as he rolls into a 13th minor league season. Yet his hope is often met by reality staring right back.
“Is it hard? Absolutely it’s hard. It’s extremely hard to be one place and sometimes feel like you are stuck,” Sanchez said in Spanish through a team interpreter. “But this is my home.”
And it was easy to tell, right then, that home isn’t one place for Sanchez, not central New York or suburban Maryland or any of the rickety minor league stadiums he has walked into in the past decade. Home is wherever there’s a chance.