Pirates' Sanchez defying the odds

Pittsburgh closer Mike Gonzalez made his contribution to team camaraderie in May when he bought a Ping-Pong table for the PNC Park home clubhouse. To no one's surprise, the ultra-competitive Freddy Sanchez is now ranked No. 1 ahead of shortstop Jack Wilson in the Pirates' intramural table tennis rankings.

Sanchez, who is accustomed to having scouts judge his baseball skills, runs through a mental checklist when asked to assess his game as the Pirates' resident paddle-wielding maniac.

"I have good hand-eye coordination and I put the ball in play," Sanchez says, "and I think the guys would tell you that my serve is my biggest strength. That's what gets them a lot of the time."

Fortunately for Sanchez, he won't have to quit his day job anytime soon.

Check out Major League Baseball's individual races on your favorite Web site, and you'll find Minnesota catcher Joe Mauer's mug on one side as the American League batting leader. Mauer, a Gopher State favorite son, has appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, inspired a Joe Mauer Fake Sideburn Night at the Metrodome, and dated former Miss USA Chelsea Cooley this season.

The National League's leader in batting average and doubles is Freddy Sanchez, a 28-year-old former draft afterthought who is still trying to shake the perception that his All-Star season is an aberration. Rotisserie players and front-office executives across America keep waiting for him to wake up and realize he's just a humble utility player.

Pittsburgh general manager Dave Littlefield was skeptical enough about Sanchez's prospects as an everyday third baseman that he signed free agent Joe Randa to a $4 million deal last December. But when Randa went down with a foot injury in May, Sanchez seized his opportunity and ran with it.

If Sanchez can fend off Florida's Miguel Cabrera in September, he will join Hall of Famers Honus Wagner, Paul Waner, Arky Vaughan and Roberto Clemente as one of 10 Buccos with a batting crown.

Among active players, Sanchez is part of a less heralded yet inspirational list. He has joined David Eckstein, Jamey Carroll, Juan Pierre, Chone Figgins, Craig Counsell, Ryan Freel and Nick Punto in that group of persistent players who become regulars by refusing to take no for an answer.

"Freddy wasn't going to be an off-the-charts player, so he needed to wait for an opportunity," says Pirates hitting coach Jeff Manto. "I guarantee you as we go down the stretch that people will be rooting him on. It's a real good story."

It's easy to pull for Sanchez in light of all the obstacles he's overcome. He was born with a pigeon-toed left foot and a "club" right foot, and the doctors told his parents he might never walk properly. Sanchez underwent corrective surgery at age 1 and had to wear special shoes -- "like the ones Forrest Gump wore," he says -- to correct the problem.

Sanchez is a product of Burbank, Calif., a town of mixed incomes and races and big dreams. His father, Fred Sr., drove a truck for a living, and his mother, Michelle, worked for a janitorial services company.

In Burbank, aspiring young actors and entertainers are part of the scene at local parks and the mall. As a high schooler, Sanchez played pickup basketball with the likes of actor Will Smith and singer Brian McKnight.

Sports were a substitute for a social life. While the other kids attended parties on the weekends, Sanchez and his friend Jeff Atkinson were on the tennis courts next to the high school baseball field playing until the lights went out at 11 p.m. They invented a competition they called the "tennis ball game," drawing a strike zone and heaving fastballs to each other from a distance of 25 to 30 feet.

"When you're that close, it's the equivalent of 100 miles an hour," Sanchez says. Bat speed was a prerequisite for survival.

Sanchez attended Glendale Community College and Dallas Baptist University before signing with the Boston Red Sox out of Oklahoma City University for a $1,000 bonus. He used the money to pay off some credit card debt and began the rung-by-rung climb through the minors.

Sanchez has a track record for putting up numbers. He batted .303 in Augusta, .339 in Sarasota, .326 and .328 in Trenton, and .301 and .341 in Pawtucket. But when a Boston-Pittsburgh trade in 2003 nearly unraveled because of Brandon Lyon's elbow issues, the Red Sox reconfigured the deal by throwing Sanchez into the mix.

From the outset, Sanchez has generated mixed reviews from scouts. They love the way he runs out grounders with fervor and values hitting the ball to the right side to advance a runner. But average tools and his lack of home run power invite skepticism.

"You're always wanting more," says a National League scout. "He hits for average but doesn't hit home runs, so you don't want him at third. And you don't want him at second or short because he doesn't have the range. But when a guy keeps hitting .300, you find a spot for him."

"His bat path is very unorthodox. He gets through the zone in so many different ways and different spots. He has a knack for putting the ball in play."
-- Pirates hitting coach Jeff Manto
on Sanchez

And when a guy has big-time heart and desire, he makes you believe. Sanchez's competitiveness is a given whether he's playing Ping-Pong or video games or picking the roster for his beloved fantasy football team.

Several years ago, when Sanchez was a prospect in the Boston chain, he played pickup basketball in spring training with pitcher Phil Dumatrait, their agent Paul Cobbe, and a couple of other friends. One day Sanchez's group took on a team of minor leaguers who were taller, stronger and more physically gifted, and still beat them game after game.

Sanchez was the one breathing the hardest, setting picks and chastising teammates for letting up on defense or the boards. He also does the most talking to get into the opposition's head.

"It doesn't matter what the game is -- Freddy is total hustle all the time," Cobbe says. "He's the kind of guy who'll just practice and practice at something until he beats you. He's so competitive, he'll destroy himself to be better than you."

Sanchez's hitting style defies categorization. Throw him a fastball outside and he might hit it to right. Throw him the same pitch in the next at-bat and he might rip it to left. His spray chart is so unpredictable, it's almost impossible for opposing teams to defense him.

Other than getting his front foot down in time and having his hips aligned properly, Sanchez has a relatively low-maintenance swing. The biggest constant is his aggressive mind-set. Sanchez is hitting .397 on the first pitch and .426 when the count is 0-1, and he ranks 82nd among NL regulars with 3.42 pitches per plate appearance.

"His bat path is very unorthodox," Manto says. "He gets through the zone in so many different ways and different spots. He has a knack for putting the ball in play."

Sanchez's big season is resonating all the way back to Burbank. A few years ago, he bought his father a laptop computer so that Fred Sr. could watch his minor league games over the Internet. This year, Sanchez gave his dad the Major League Baseball cable package as a Father's Day gift.

"He doesn't miss a game," Sanchez says. "He told me it's the greatest gift he ever had."

Five weeks after making the National League All-Star team, Sanchez is still in pinch-me mode. First he rode to PNC Park in the back of a convertible through a gauntlet of screaming fans. Then, as his family and friends soaked up the moment from the stands, the crowd chanted "Fred-dy! Fred-dy!" as the public address announcer read Sanchez's name during pregame introductions.

So what would a National League batting title mean?

"Freddy might not say it, but I think it would mean everything to him," Manto says. "It would bring him to his knees."

And when the emotion subsided, Sanchez would get off his knees, jump back in the cage and swing until his hands were raw. Some habits are hard to break.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.