Miguel Sano Overcame Death of Child, Suicidal Thoughts to Reach MLB Superstardom

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistAugust 14, 2017

Minnesota Twins' Miguel Sano reacts as he rounds the bases after hitting a home run during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Chirp, chirp, true story: As Minnesota Twins slugger Miguel Sano arrived at Target Field one day earlier this season, he spotted a bird in the grass.

The bird seemed a little weak. Slow. Sano whistled softly, and wouldn't you know it, the bird ambled toward him.

So the big third baseman carefully scooped it up with his hands and brought it into the clubhouse "to see if we could do something about it," he explains. On this journey of mercy, though, he made sure to detour near hitting coach James Rowson, who has a touch of ornithophobia.

Rowson took off as if in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. The players who were in the area are still howling over that one.

"I ran faster than I've run since high school," Rowson says, two months now being a safe distance between him and the rescue (the bird was fine, and released). "I've got a little thing where I have a fear of flying things."

Minnesota's bird-whisperer and middle-of-the-order bopper, Sano specializes in flying things. He's smashed 25 home runs this year while gaining altitude as one of baseball's breakout stars. Last month he finished second to the New York Yankees' Aaron Judge in his first Home Run Derby.

But the very best thing this summer is found in Sano's own nest, where bright smiles have replaced anguish and tears, where son Dylan Miguel, just 10 months old, is living proof of the gifts each new sunrise can deliver.

You see, it was bad enough in the spring of 2014 when Sano's elbow popped as he was throwing from third base, making him the rare position player to lose a season to Tommy John ligament replacement surgery. But early that December his first child, Angelica, died of a heart defect one week after her birth in the Dominican Republic.

"He's been through a lot in the last few years," says Mike Radcliff, Minnesota's vice president of player personnel. Nobody knows the depths of that statement more than Sano and the Twins, who signed him as an amateur free agent in 2009 following an exhaustive MLB investigation into Sano's age that subjected him to DNA testing, bone-density testing and was chronicled in the film Ballplayer: Pelotero. Amateur players in Latin American countries must wait until they are 16 to sign professionally in the United States, and there were early charges that he was underage.

Miguel Sano wasn't with the Twins for long in 2014 as an elbow injury suffered that spring caused him to have Tommy John surgery and miss the season.
Miguel Sano wasn't with the Twins for long in 2014 as an elbow injury suffered that spring caused him to have Tommy John surgery and miss the season.Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

Sano emerged from abject poverty that was shocking even by Dominican standards. He and his family were living in a graffiti-covered shack with rotting mattresses when he signed a $3.15 million deal with the Twins. The investigation and controversy cost him what many estimated was an additional $2 million.

He debuted in the majors at 22 in 2015 and crushed 18 home runs with 52 RBI in just 80 games. But his production plummeted in 2016, his OPS dropping to .781 from .916 for several reasons, among them, as manager Paul Molitor says, maybe there was a part of him who listened to people "who maybe gave him a little bit of a false impression as to how big he was in relation to the game."

This season, "there's been a natural progression, and he's starting to see it, feel it," Radcliff says. "The best example is David Ortiz. He grew from, I don't want to say a clown, but a fun-loving guy to feeling how important it all is and the impact he can have not just in the clubhouse but on a team, in a community and, jeez, he leaves the game as an icon in one of the greatest sports cities in the world.

"I'm not going to say Miguel will do that. But he has a chance to have that kind of arc in his career."

Big dreams begin with small steps. But there are no clear instructions for when those dreams and steps collide hard with tragedy. When Sano and his wife, Daniela, were told their daughter had died, the scout who signed him for the Twins was with them.

Fred Guerrero is the son of the late, legendary Dominican Republic scout Epy Guerrero, who, during his career, signed more than 50 major leaguers, including Cesar Cedeno (Houston Astros), Carlos Delgado and Tony Fernandez (Toronto Blue Jays), Damaso Garcia (New York Yankees) and Alcides Escobar (Milwaukee Brewers). Fred and his wife, Anny, had lost a daughter the year before, during a C-section, and would lose another daughter in 2015.

Grief cut though on so many levels. Sano and his family were devastated. The dull-edged heartache within Fred and Anny stirred all over again. Baseball is a game, sure. But it doesn't shield those within from the miseries of life that torment so many with flat-out unanswerable questions. Like, how do you even go on from tragedy? How do you make it through today? And, then, tomorrow?

Speaking from personal experience, and touching on their shared faith, Guerrero told Sano to trust in God. That he had to accept what happened, no matter how horrible. And while he talked with Miguel over the next many months, Anny talked with Daniela.

"It took him time, but he's a young, tough kid," Guerrero says, speaking via cellphone after a showcase event for amateur players in Aruba. "He knows he battles for his family. They all count on him. He basically goes out to play for them."

Struggling with the death of his daughter and a league that had learned to pitch to him, Sano hit .236 last season while driving in 66 runs in 116 games.
Struggling with the death of his daughter and a league that had learned to pitch to him, Sano hit .236 last season while driving in 66 runs in 116 games.Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

In addition to his wife and son, Sano has 12 brothers and sisters, his mother, his stepfather and his father. That's a lot on one pair of shoulders, even if those shoulders are atop a 6'4", 262-pound frame. He started playing baseball at 10, figured out he was good enough to have a shot as a pro at 12 and has lived on the diamond ever since. So he is accustomed to the battles. But losing Angelica, it was unimaginable.

"It's the biggest struggle I've gone through," Sano says quietly during a lengthy conversation with B/R. "But it happened. I think about it all the time. Hopefully, it doesn't ever happen to me again. It's part of who I am, and I just live with it."

He still talks to Guerrero at least every other day. Sometimes more. They check in, discuss their families, the challenges of the day or week, and then they go to back to work, Guerrero hunting players, Sano hunting fastballs.

"You know, it's tough for everyone," Sano says. "If you lost a baby, you think about that the whole year."

He pauses, choosing his words carefully. He regularly attended English classes coming up through the Twins' minor league system and is proud of his progress. When we talked at the All-Star Game in Miami, we spoke in English. In Los Angeles a couple of weeks later, he preferred to use the translator the Twins employ and conduct his part of the interview in Spanish. Then, we finished in English again.

Sano's search for a verbal comfort zone isn't all that surprising. So much comes at these young, Latin American players so fast, and from so many angles. Suddenly by themselves in a foreign country, the culture shock alone can be overwhelming. Then you begin layering over that with everything else that Sano has battled through, and you can see. It is complicated.

He told USA Today's Jorge Ortiz this spring that, initially, Angelica's passing did more than make him ponder quitting baseball. It drove him to thoughts of committing suicide.

"I saw that interview," Guerrero says. "I know there are a lot of thoughts that came through his mind. We never talked about him thinking about committing suicide."

Today, a large tattoo on his right forearm depicts his beloved daughter, and Sano deflects questions regarding any suicidal thoughts.

"I don't like talking about it because of how personal it is," Sano says. "I talked to Fred about it, and his experiences helped me get through it and helped me to get stronger."

You could tell, says Rob Antony, longtime Twins vice president and assistant GM. Even after Sano debuted on July 2, 2015, swinging as if he was making up for lost time, you could tell.

He was hitting .455 by the end of his seventh game. Popped four homers by the end of his first month. He was settling in, and on his way. But tucked within were consistent moments of sorrow and confusion.

"There were times he would get fairly emotional. He's talked about it a lot, so no doubt it's never far from his mind," Antony says.

"I have no doubt that it weighed on him heavily."

Sano hit 18 home runs in only 80 games in his rookie season with the Twins in 2015.
Sano hit 18 home runs in only 80 games in his rookie season with the Twins in 2015.Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

Recently traded closer Brandon Kintzler signed with the Twins before the 2016 season following six years with the Milwaukee Brewers. He was with the Brewers in July 2014 when the club learned that shortstop Jean Segura's nine-month-old son, Janniel, died at home in the Dominican Republic.

"You see it happen to a grown man like that, and you realize that baseball really means nothing," says Kintzler, an All-Star this year whom the Twins traded to Washington on July 31. "You just want to go home and hang out with your family. It took Segura a couple of years to bounce back. He's obviously having a great year this year, but I couldn't even imagine. Having a child now [Kintzler's son, Knox, will turn two in October], I could not even imagine that happening to me."

Indeed, 2014 and 2015 were the worst seasons of Segura's six-year career. In 2014, he posted a career-low .246 batting average. In 2015, he racked up a career-worst .281 on-base percentage. This summer, he's hitting .319/.373/.440.

"The fact that Sano is still here, and he's standing," Kintzler says. "... He's probably even a better person now, and probably a greater father now. You've gotta give a lot of credit to that guy. The emotions he went through … he must have a great family around him."

It is impossible to quantify the ongoing effect of sorrow on batting averages and on-base percentages, but after his eye-opening debut in 2015, Sano was more disappointing than not in 2016. Life continued charging at him at full volume, beginning with a difficult transition from third base to right field in spring training. With Trevor Plouffe then ensconced at third and the Twins wanting to shoehorn Sano's bat into the lineup, they sent him out early on many spring training mornings to learn the outfield.

Retired Twin-turned-special adviser Torii Hunter served as his personal tutor in Fort Myers, Florida, and together they would work on fly balls, routes, footwork and throwing to the cutoff man.

"He gave it a great go," Hunter says. "He was willing. He did not stop and complain one time. He was like, 'All right, if this is how I'm going to be in the majors, I'm going to do it."

But he's so big, and he never did become comfortable. Finally, on July 1, the Twins pulled the plug and moved him back to third base.

"Playing right field, I was more tired," says Sano, whose batting average dipped 33 points from '15 to '16 (.269 to .236) and whose on-base percentage dropped 66 points (.385 to .319). "I don't take a rest. I need to run in from the outfield to come hit. It's a good decision to make, and I never can say no, but I want to say thanks to God for giving me a chance to come back to third base."

Sano worked with Torii Hunter (right) last season to transition to the outfield, but he struggled to find a comfort level there and eventually moved back to third base.
Sano worked with Torii Hunter (right) last season to transition to the outfield, but he struggled to find a comfort level there and eventually moved back to third base.Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

Throughout, be it from fatigue, lack of focus, immaturity, the grief still simmering in the back of his mind or any number of other reasons, Sano gave away far too many at-bats in 2016, several Twins acknowledge . Among others, Antony had several conversations with him throughout the summer "trying to help him through some things," Antony says. "Sometimes you need to kick him in the rear, and sometimes you need to put your arm around him and say, 'Hey, we believe in you.'

"I think he always feels like he's battling to be one of the most respected players in the game, in a positive way. He takes pride in it, rather than expecting something to be handed to him. When someone is critical, it hurts him.

"He's somewhat of a sensitive giant."

For several days after he was named as an All-Star in early July, Sano's entire body language changed. An always-gregarious personality became even more bubbly. His smile was brighter, his enthusiasm greater.

Though he leads the majors with 159 strikeouts, his .863 OPS ranks 17th in the AL and his combination of 25 homers, 72 RBI and .356 OBP is in line with what the Twins envisioned as his career path.

"I've known him since about 110 pounds ago," Radcliff quips. "We always thought he was a hitter, not just a slugger. I still think that's going to be part of his deal. He's a threat to get a hit, not just a homer.

"And eventually, he's got the kind of personality and makeup that can impact the clubhouse."

It was Radcliff who, working in tandem with Guerrero, went to former Minnesota GM Bill Smith in '09 and asked if he would please go to ownership to sign this kid? The Twins already were over their international budget allotment at the time, but owner Jim Pohlad told Smith, if you think this is the right move, go get it done.

Molitor has noticed this season that Sano has expressed an interest, and a willingness, to be a leader for the Twins.
Molitor has noticed this season that Sano has expressed an interest, and a willingness, to be a leader for the Twins.Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

"After we signed him," Antony says, "[Sano] kept saying, 'I'm happy to be with the Twins. They trust me. They believe in me.'"

There's more for Sano to master. Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier are the veteran leaders in the Minnesota clubhouse, but, as Molitor says, Sano wants to be a leader, too, and his influence is growing every day.

The manager sees it in the clubhouse, and in the dugout. When the Twins celebrated their 1987 World Series championship during a Target Field ceremony last month, Molitor happened to stand next to Sano at the dugout railing.

"There's a gentle spirit in there, but I think the competition rages," Molitor says. "He just couldn't stop talking about how much he wanted to have that experience one day, coming back and sharing the memories of a championship with friends and teammates. He had this huge smile on his face.

"He was listening to every word. He was engaged. It shows. He's starting to understand."

When Mauer smashed the first walk-off home run of his career to beat Boston on May 5, Sano raced from the on-deck circle to greet Mauer at the plate, then lifted him up into the air triumphantly as if Mauer, at 6'5", 225 pounds, was a pint-sized Jose Altuve.

"He wasn't like, 'I didn't get a chance,'" Molitor says. "He was the most excited guy on the field. And I think those little, small glimpses of how he views winning have become really [regular], so that's really cool, too."

Knowing all that he's gone through, the Twins treasure both Sano's prodigious home runs and his contagious laughter. Often, they seem to feed off each other. Like that rescued bird earlier this season, Sano has regained his strength and taken flight. It is evident in his All-Star status…and it was evident when he deployed a rubber snake in the dugout on a day when he was not in the lineup, practically giving poor pitching coach Neil Allen a heart attack on the spot. The laughs that followed engulfed the entire dugout.

Kintzler chuckles when he recalls someone asking teammate Ervin Santana earlier this season whom he would not let babysit his kids, and Santana replied Sano because "you can't let a kid babysit a kid."

"That's why he's so good," Kintzler says. "He shows up and doesn't take himself too seriously."

Every day this season before he was traded, Kintzler reminded Sano: Stay humble. By June, Sano was saying it back to Kintzler.

"I'm like, 'You don't need to worry about me. I've been humbled many times. You stay humble,'" Kintzler says.

A month after the Mauer walk-off, when Kintzler suffered a rare blown save opportunity, in Seattle, Sano was the first teammate on the scene again.

"Usually, the biggest superstars on the team aren't like that, but he was one of the first guys who came up to me and was, like, 'You're still our guy, you're still our guy,'" Kintzler recalls. "The next day, I got the save and he was the first one up to me, giving me a hug."

Then, when Kintzler notched another save right after Sano was named as an All-Star, the big third baseman bear-hugged him on the field and told the closer, "You're my All-Star. You're my All-Star."

"It was really cool," says Kintzler, clearly touched. "You just don't see that."

From when they were teammates in '15 to now, Hunter says, Sano has bounced back, grown and matured in so many ways.

"Talking to him about life, he gets it," says Hunter, who has advised the slugger on the value of learning English, financial literacy, marketing and being a good citizen. "He asks the questions, and that's what I love about him."

Sano has been quick to prop up a teammate after a tough game or celebrate with one after a big hit.
Sano has been quick to prop up a teammate after a tough game or celebrate with one after a big hit.Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

"He's helped me a lot," Sano says of Hunter. "He told me once that the best way to play baseball is to surround yourself with good people and a better world, and I think that's what I am doing now. It's allowed me to be who I am and it's helped me mature more."

With Dylan Miguel at home and a career just starting to find its rhythm, Sano has found it easier to make others smile.

Why, a couple of weeks ago at the Oakland Coliseum, a woman wearing a Minnesota jersey held up a sign reading, "Miguel Sano, can I have a hug?" and she was beside herself when he jogged over to deliver.

Out of the darkness that once enveloped him, a guiding light has emerged, attracting teammates, fans and, yes, even birds.

Kintzler nods approvingly, smiling and observing: "Everyone goes to him."


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.