SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Backup catcher Hector Sanchez was chatting about his many tattoos with a reporter Wednesday morning when bench coach Ron Wotus approached him on the quickstep, armed with a folded piece of paper and a mischievous smile.
Sanchez unfolded the paper. A revised lineup against the White Sox. One that had him at first base.
“Scared?” Wotus said.
“Me?” Sanchez said, puffing out his lower lip. “I’m not scared of nothing. NOTHING. Piece of cake.”
Brandon Belt’s flu kept him down for the count, Michael Morse’s calf was enough of a lingering concern to keep from breaking him in at first base and Sanchez had spent the past few days taking ground balls at the position. Without a Brett Pill on the roster, it’s not the worst idea in the world for Sanchez to be able to play there in a pinch. Plus, Giants manager Bruce Bochy might be able to utilize Sanchez’s switch-hitting bat more often off the bench this season, if he could keep him in the game and thus protect himself in case something happened a little later to Buster Posey.
So there it was. Hector at first base.
“You’re lucky I’m not playing shortstop,” yelled coach and former scattershot shortstop Shawon Dunston. “I’d break you in real good!”
He got broken in anyway. Alejandro de Aza hit a one-hop smash to his right in the third inning. The very next batter, Tyler Flowers, hit a grounder that third baseman Pablo Sandoval ranged near the line to backhand. Sandoval's long throw skipped just short of the bag.
Sanchez picked both plays clean.
Then in the fifth, former Giant Conor Gillaspie scorched another grounder to Sanchez’s right – his toughest chance of the day. He made that one look easy, too.
“It looks like he’s picking pitches at home plate,” a smiling Tim Lincecum said afterward. “Belt has to watch out for his job now.”
“Yeah, how good did he look?” Bochy said, with emphasis. “I’ve never seen him over there. Then he goes out and does that, it’s pretty impressive. … He came to camp in great shape. He made it look easy over there. It’s a nice option to have, and he’s earned another look over there. I’ll say that.”
Said Sanchez, descending the dugout steps after the 4-3 victory: “I TELL you guys. Piece of cake!”
Last spring, it appeared Sanchez helped himself to a few too many of those pieces. He came to camp heavy, and with an injured right shoulder that made every throw feel like being stabbed with a paring knife just below the collarbone.
He’s throwing worlds better this spring. That much is apparent. And so is something else.
Back to that ink…
“Oh, man, I don’t know,” Sanchez said, staring at the ceiling when asked how much cash he’s dropped on body art. “Maybe $10,000? At least $10,000.”
Spend enough time in major league clubhouses and you’ll see some very, very mediocre artwork – mostly tattoos procured by players when they were in the minor leagues, when the combination of poverty and impulsiveness (and maybe blood alcohol percentage) leads to some bad decisions.
There is nothing mediocre about Sanchez’s body art. He has an immaculate portrait of Jesus Christ on his upper right arm that looks as if it was lifted off the wall of the Prado. More visible are the new tats spider-webbed over the back of his hands and each knuckle.
He has a rose on the back of his throwing hand with Esmeralda, his mother’s name. inscribed above it. On the back of his left hand is a triangle with an eye in the middle – “the sign of the Illuminati,” he said – to remind him to keep his past, present and future all within sight.
The letters on his left knuckles spell out LOVE. On his right, HOPE.
“Hope,” Sanchez said. “That is the first word I learned in English. When I came here, I knew to say, `How are you?’ and ‘Hello.’ But that is the first word I learned here.”
He learned that word, and many others, four years ago at Low-A Augusta, when right-hander Chris Heston would invite him to watch TV shows at his apartment.
It is a good word to know in any language, especially when you are working a job in a foreign land and your home country is in a state of disarray. Sanchez’s wife is supposed to arrive in Arizona on Saturday. He is trying to get his parents out of Venezuela as well, but flights are scarce. He said he puts the unrest and uncertainty out of his mind when he steps on the field.
“All the time, I am thinking about it,” he said.
Thinking and hoping. And maybe, as a momentary diversion, contemplating his next tattoo. There’s probably enough room down one leg to write a grocery list, I joked. Or a piece of cake.
His brazos are full up. Turning over his right forearm, a quote becomes visible on the underside: “Aprende como tu vas a vivir por siempre … Vive como tu vas a morir manana.”
You don’t need an answer key to translate it. Just look at the underside of Sanchez’s other forearm. The quote so resonated with him that he had it tattooed in English, too. “Learn like you will live forever … Live like you will die tomorrow.”
And in the meantime, hope for nothing but the best.