Success stories have come out of Tijuana, Mexico Carlos Santana, Rita Hayworth, the guy who invented Caesar salad. But for the most part, the border town must constantly battle its image as a haven for drug dealers, scofflaws and tawdry souvenirs.
People wondered if anything good could come out of Nazareth. They wonder the same thing about Tijuana.
Well, it can.
Freddy Sandoval is from Tijuana.
And the Salt Lake Bees third baseman is good in many ways he's a good hitter, with a smooth, quick stroke. He's a good neighbor, often donating time and energy to help kids and others looking for direction. And after hitting rock bottom a couple of years ago when he handed his life over to God Freddy Sandoval has tried heart and soul to be a good person.
"I took Freddy to a Little League event," says Hannah Lee, who handles media relations for the Bees. "He's great with the kids. He stresses they should stay in school. That's something very important to him. He loves to give things to them. He remembers what it was like being a kid in love with baseball."
It's a love affair that never died.
"As a boy, I lived for baseball," he says. "No basketball, no football, just baseball. I'd come home from school, do my homework and run off to play baseball."
"I think he was born to play baseball," says his father, Freddy Sandoval Sr., a Tijuana architect. "He was practically born on a baseball diamond. As a little boy he was an exceptional player. And I believe he has what it takes to get to the majors. But then, I'm his father."
Freddy's father was his first coach. A lifelong fan of Mickey Mantle, the elder Sandoval taught his boy to switch-hit, a skill that has served him well.
"The first time he batted left-handed, he hit a home run," the elder Sandoval says with pride.
Still, it almost goes without saying that any path that leads from Tijuana to the big time will have some switchbacks and rough patches. So it has been with Freddy. As a boy, his parents along with his brother and three sisters were able to steer him past the cliffs and drop-offs. But even then it was a trial.
"It was tough growing up in Tijuana," Freddy says today." Even today I'm nervous about going back there. I was able to stay away from drugs and things when I was young, and sometimes they were close at hand."
Even though Freddy didn't speak English, Sandoval Sr. got him into Marian Catholic High School in San Diego, where he helped produce three championship teams. The University of San Diego was impressed and offered him a baseball scholarship. His junior year he was drafted by the Angels. Everything was coming up roses until almost predictably the ugly side of life surfaced. Away from home, the devil dropped his calling card at Freddy's door.
"In 2005 I had a lot of problems. I didn't know where my head was," he says today. "That's when I found Christ. Now I'm a day-to-day guy. I have to be. I try to stay happy and keep my head from going to the wrong place."
He says he could literally feel his life turn around.
"Once I turned everything over to God, things began lining up," he says. "The 2007 season was amazing. Then this year, everything's been just phenomenal. Being around the great guys on this team makes me want to be a better player and a better person."
When his father looks back on Freddy's "troubled times," his own brow furrows.
"Like all young people, he had some friends that led him into temptation," says Dad. "But, thankfully, he found God. Now he's on a better path. He's found a guide. He's centered. Today, he's a great example for the kids in Tijuana. He's a good boy with good feelings."
The future, needless to say, remains up in the air as is always the case for minor league baseball players. But Freddy isn't concerned. He's a sure-handed fielder, but he's put his future into hands more sure than his own.
"I just go out there each day and enjoy the game," he says. "If I don't have fun, I get too much inside my head. I don't worry. I don't even feel like I'm the one doing all this. I give all my accomplishments to God."
And those accomplishments have been piling up.
In 2007 he was selected to play on the World Team. He batted .305 with Arkansas last year, which landed him a spot in AAA ball with the Bees. At press time with three games left in the Pacific Coast season Sandoval was batting .330 with 14 home runs. His game seems to improve with every at bat.
"I like coming to the field, getting into the batting cage and getting into a routine. It's been such a road," he says.
And he keeps his gaze fixed above the horizon.
"I believe in God and I believe in heaven," he says. "I'm shooting for heaven."
And if the major leagues comecalling in the meantime?
"If that happens, I'll feel blessed. It's a blessing to be on the same field with players who mean so much to the game. Yes, I'm looking forward to finding out where it all leads. My wife likes to look ahead a little bit too, but I tell her not to try to see into the future. You have to live in the moment. If it's meant to be, it will happen. Everything happens for a reason. I just hope the reasons keep coming."
If the reasons have anything to do with base hits, you can bet they'll keep coming.After all, Freddy Sandoval was born to play baseball.
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