The most famous eye issue in Minnesota Twins history has to be the Kirby Puckett glaucoma issue that led to the future Hall of Famer’s premature retirement. In a meaningless fall game against the Indians at the Metrodome on September 28, 1995 with the Twins in last place and 42 games out of first place, Puckett was hit in the face by a fastball from Dennis Martinez in the bottom of the first inning. When Puckett who was the DH that afternoon and in the third spot in the batting order stepped to the plate, Chuck Knoblauch was on third base after he too was hit by a Martinez pitch leading off the game. Knobby stole second and advanced to third on a fly ball to center by Matt Lawton. On a 0-2 count Martinez hit Puckett in the face and blow shattered his jaw and put him out of play for the rest of the season. My wife and I were at that game along with just 9,440 others and when Puckett fell to the ground the silence was amazing, you could have heard a pin drop before Indians catcher Tony Pena and the Twins medical staff rushed to Puckett’s aid.
At spring training camp the following March he was batting well, but on March 28 he woke up unable to see out of his right eye. Doctors discovered he had glaucoma. The problem could not be corrected, even after four surgeries, and on July 12, 1996, he announced his retirement as a player.
This past summer Philadelphia Phillies pitching prospect Matt Imhof was injured in a freak accident when he was struck in the face by a resistance band that was anchored to a wall following a minor league game in Florida. The mounted base broke off the wall and damaged Imhof’s right eye. Doctor’s were unable to save the eye. At last report Imhof had not decided if he would continue his professional baseball career as a pitcher. Imhof, a left-hander was a Phillies second round selection in the June 2014 draft.
Almost 50 years ago back in the fall of 1968 a freak injury caused a Minnesota Twins minor league catching prospect to also lose an eye playing the game he loved.
Many players can say that they played ball in the Minnesota Twins minor league system but few can say that they were good enough and fortunate enough to wear a MLB Minnesota Twins uniform. Because of a tragic accident nearly fifty years ago on October 6, 1968 catcher Franklyn Sands big league dreams took a sharp detour and his dreams of becoming a big leaguer would never happen and his life was forever chnaged.
The Bahamas are not exactly a hot-bed for major league talent but at last count six players born in the Bahamas have worn a big league uniform. According to some, Frank Sands was one of the best catchers to ever come out of the Bahamas when the Houston Astros signed Sands to a contract to play pro ball as a 17-year old and sent him to play class A ball in Bismarck-Mandan in the Northern league in 1966. After the 1966 season the Astros chose not to protect Sands and the Minnesota Twins drafted him and assigned him to AAA Denver in 1967 where he appeared in just 46 games. The following season the Twins organization decided to send Sands to play class A ball for the Wilson Tobs. Sands caught 116 of the teams 139 games and gained a reputation as a good receiver with a whip like arm but his hitting remained a work in progress.
Then on October 6, 1968 while taking part in the Twins Florida Instructional League tragedy struck, here is how B-R Bullpen describes the incident.
“Sands was warming up pitcher Tom Hall. Hall bounced a breaking ball in the dirt, and it caromed up and off Sands’ mitt into his cheekbone. A sliver of bone punctured his eye from the inside. Sands knew immediately that he had lost the eye. Scipio Spinks observed, “After his accident, it was mandatory for catchers to wear a mask while warming up pitchers.”
Frank spent four weeks in the hospital, and as soon as he got out, the first thing he wanted to do was put on his uniform and get out for batting practice. He was determined to come back, despite the obstacle he faced in batting with impaired depth perception. Twins owner Calvin Griffith liked the young man very much and gave him every opportunity. In fact, Griffith said that Sands would have a job for life with the organization if he wanted it.”
Sands reported for spring training in 1969, this time as a pitcher but was farmed out early in training camp to the class A Orlando Twins where he appeared in just three games pitching just four innings before breaking his arm throwing a pitch. Frank Sands professional baseball career was over but he still caught in the Bahamas Baseball Association for several years playing a game he loved.
Scipio Spinks was a pitcher and a teammate of Sands in the Northern League in 1966 and today is a scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Here is what Scipio wrote in a e-mail to me about Frankie Sands.
“It’s been a long time, he mostly hung out with Roy Bethel and other Bahamian players. He was a very good catcher and had a cannon for an arm, very friendly and sure of himself, I threw to him some as he was a very good catcher. He wasn’t a good hitter though and he struggled at the plate. We only played together for a few years as he was ruled 5 by the Twins, I believe he could have become a decent hitter and I do believe he would have made it to the Big Leagues.”
Franklyn Sands (Sporting News March 29, 1969 P7)
There have been some serious eye injuries in American Sports history and each of them ended up changing the way the game was played in some fashion.