RIP to Tommy Sandt, who had a brief career as a major-league infielder before embarking on a long and influential career as a minor- and major-league coach. He died on December 1 at the age of 69. He was living in Lake Oswego, Ore., at the time of his death. Sandt played for the Oakland Athletics from 1975-76.
Thomas James Sandt was born in Brooklyn on December 22, 1950. By the time it came to high school, the family had moved across the country, as he attended Pacifica High School in Garden Grove, Calif. He was an All-Star quarterback/halfback/kick returner on the football team, but he was even better on the baseball team — in an under-the-radar way. Most scouts on the West Coast considered the top high school infield prospect available for the 1969 Amateur Draft was Alan Bannister of John F. Kennedy High School in La Palma. In fact, Bannister was drafted in the First Round of the draft by the California Angels. However, Sandt was thought to be the next-best player in the county. He hit .444 in his senior year at Pacifica. The Oakland Athletics drafted Sandt in the Second Round of the ’69 draft, as the 33rd overall player taken.
While Bannister never did sign with the Angels and went to college instead, Sandt signed quickly and was assigned to the Tri-City A’s of Pasco, Wash., in the Northwest League. After two weeks’ worth of games, manager Billy Herman was calling the 18-year-old shortstop the best player on the team. Sandt hit .317 for the A’s in the leadoff spot, with 63 runs scored in 60 games and 16 stolen bases. He led the Northwest League in runs and fielding percentage at shortstop (.922). Herman loved his baserunning. “He takes two steps, and he’s in overdrive. The boy came here as a superb runner,” Herman said.
For the next few years, Sandt struggled in the low minors. He played in just 29 games in 1970, hitting .288 for the Class-A Burlington Bees of the Midwest League. His average slipped to .251 in 1971 while splitting time between Burlington and the AA Birmingham A’s. To make matters worse, a fire at the Burlington Bees’ Community Field destroyed the stands, concessions area, the Bees’ clubhouse — and Sandt’s car, which happened to be parked near the stands.
Sandt got his first taste of AAA baseball when he spent 1974 with the Tucson Toros of the Pacific Coast League. Manager Sherm Lollar started him at second and third base to train him as a utility infielder. His fielding at shortstop was pretty good, and he worked hard to improve at his new positions as well.
“When I first started playing third, [teammate] Phil Garner had to yell at me from the dugout and tell me where to throw the ball,” said Sandt. “But now I have more confidence and I know what to do.”
Sandt didn’t hit well in 81 games, batting .238 with just 8 doubles and 14 RBIs. He returned to Tucson in 1975 and delivered a much better performance, slashing .309/.363/.376. It was a good performance for someone who was to be demoted to AA Birmingham before a last-minute roster change kept him in AAA. Some of his teammates that year included Charlie Chant, Charlie Sands and Dale Sanner. I don’t know if it ever happened, but the Toros could conceivably have had Sandt, Chant, Sands and Sanner in their lineup at once.
Sandt made a couple of trips to the majors as Oakland put players on the disabled list. He was called up in late June when pitcher Sonny Siebert went on the DL. He appeared in his first MLB game on June 29, spending the ninth inning at second base without seeing any action. He was sent down after 10 days without appearing in any other games.
He later told a story about the manager, Al Dark, and his first inning in the majors. Dark went up to Sandt in the game and wanted to make a defensive change. “You’re a shortstop, right?” he asked. “Yes,” Sandt answered. “Feel comfortable at third base?” “Yes.” “OK, go warm up.” When Sandt was warmed up and ready, Dark again called him over and said, “OK, go in at second base.”
Sandt made the A’s out of spring training in 1976 as a utility infielder. He saw his first action of the year on April 25 in Cleveland when shortstop Campaneris was injured after fielding a force play at second base. In his second major-league at-bat, Sandt lined a single off reliever Don Hood for his first major-league hit. Mostly though, Sandt came into games as a defensive replacement and didn’t see very many at-bats. In his fifth major-league game, he replaced second baseman Phil Garner in the ninth inning against the Indians. With a runner on base, Cleveland’s George Hendrick hit a ground ball to Sandt and beat the throw to first base when the rookie couldn’t make the play in time.
“The ball stuck in my glove, that’s all,” Sandt told reporters later. “I went to throw to first base when I could, but by then it was too late.” Moments later, Alan Ashby hit a 2-run single off closer Rollie Fingers to give Cleveland a 3-1 win.
That mistake aside, Sandt was a good defensive player. He had 34-2/3 innings at second base and didn’t make an error in 18 chances. His .966 fielding percentage at shortstop was on par with the rest of the league. He also played 4 innings at third base but didn’t see any action there. At the plate, Sandt spent most of the season hitting under .200 but had a couple of 2-hit games in September to leave him with a .209 batting average in 41 games.
Over the 1976 offseason, the A’s went through a fire sale, getting rid of infielders Campaneris, Garner and Sal Bando. Theoretically, Sandt would have had a chance to get more playing time with Oakland. However, he was sold to New Orleans of the American Association, an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, in March of 1977. He filed a grievance against Oakland over the handling of his contract renewal and was declared a free agent on May 9. Sandt had refused to sign his 1977 contract with the A’s, so owner Charlie Finley just renewed his 1976 contract — with a more than 20 percent pay cut. That violated an agreement between owners and the Players Association that put a cap on salary reduction at 20 percent. The Cardinals re-signed him a couple of weeks later, and he finished 1977 with a .259 batting average and a career-high 10 home runs in 80 games.
Sandt moved to the Pirates organization in January of 1979 in a trade that send pitcher John Stuper to the Cardinals organization, and he finished the bulk of his playing career with the Portland Beavers in 1981. He had one excellent season, with Portland, hitting .322 over 88 games in 1979, with 14 doubles and 42 RBIs.
Sandt finished his career with 42 games in the major leagues between the two seasons. He had a slash line of .209/.284/.224, with 14 hits in 67 at-bats. His only extra base hit was a double. He also walked 7 times and drove in 3 runs.
As early as 1980, Sandt was moving into the next phase of his career. He spent the season with Portland as a player/coach. In 1982, Sandt began a 5-year career as a manager in the Pirates’ minor-league system when he was named skipper of the AA Buffalo Bisons of the Eastern League. At 31 years of age, he was a young manager and occasionally filled in as a player when needed.
Sandt’s first year as a manager resulted in a 55-84 record, but his teams finished well over .500 for the next three seasons. After another year at AA in 1983, Sandt was put in charge of the Pirates’ AAA team, the Hawaii Islanders. His teams from 1983 through ’85 featured a number of young players who would soon make their mark in the major leagues, including Joe Orsulak, Mike Bielecki, Jose DeLeon and Lee Tunnell — oh, and a 21-year-old named Barry Bonds in 1986. Bonds was a Hawaii Islander briefly before being called up to the majors.
Sandt had been planning on a career after baseball before he even reached the majors. “Phil Garner told me he didn’t think I was a good ballplayer but that I would be a good manager someday,” he recalled.
Garner was right. Sandt was named the Pacific Coast League Manager of the Year in 1984 after leading the Islanders into the postseason with a 87-53 regular-season record. He was among the job candidates to replace Chuck Tanner as the Pirates manager before the job went to Jim Leyland. Leyland did add Sandt to his coaching staff in 1987 as the first-base coach.
“Jim Leyland and I both wanted to promote someone like Tommy Sandt who has a good working knowledge of many of the young players on our major-league roster,” said general manager Syd Thrift. The relationship between Leyland and Sandt was a successful one, as Leyland would keep him on his coaching staff in Pittsburgh, Florida and Colorado.
Sandt proved to be a good judge of talent and helped to get the most of the Pirates’ young players. Bonds, for example, was a special talent right from the start, and the coach warned against him becoming too complacent.
“The thing I think Barry has to guard against is not being satisfied,” Sandt said. “Barry set goals for himself, and he’s done all of them. I think he had a timetable to get to the big leagues, and he did it. He wanted to hit 25 home runs, and he did it. He wanted to steal 30 bases, and he did it… He’s got to push himself every year.”
It wasn’t just the superstars. Sandt left an impression on many of the players who came under his tutelage. “Baseball has lost a great coach who was a lifer in the game he loved,” said Giants coach Ron Wotus on Twitter. “Thank you Tommy Sandt for mentoring me, and most of all believing in me from AA Buffalo NY through AAA Hawaii. You taught us the most important lessons, and it was a blast playing for you. We will miss you!”
He also worked with Pirates infielder Jay Bell to turn him from one of the worst bunters in baseball to one of the best. “I knew I had to learn to bunt to survive because I’m not a superstar,” he said. “I give [Tommy] a lot of credit for my success.”
Sandt even coached a group of Pittsburgh ballet dancers who were preparing for roles in “The Mighty Casey,” a ballet based on the famous “Casey at the Bat” poem. The biggest problem he had was that the dancers tended to use a ballet stance in their batter’s stance, with their feet pointed outwards in a dancer’s turn-out position. “They’ve got the basiscs. They are athletes, after all,” Sandt added.
The one thing he couldn’t do? Throw batting practice. Fellow Pirates coach Rich Donnelly called him “Lucky Strike,” because he was lucky if he threw a strike. “John Cangelosi, who is about 4 feet tall, never swings at a pitch. He always looks to walk,” Donnelly said. “The other day, Tommy threw extra hitting to John. He took 200 pitches and called it a day.”
Sandt remained in the major leagues as a coach from 1987 until 2002. He coached for Leyland in Pittsburgh (1987-96), Florida (1997-98) and Colorado (1999). He then returned to Pittsburgh as a coach for managers Gene Lamont and Lloyd McClendon until 2002. He was let go after the season and worked as a hitting instructor for the Portland Beavers until retiring from the game.
With that kind of career, Sandt ran into pretty much every noteworthy name in the game over the last three or four decades. He once recalled a time in the minors when a young opposing player named Rickey Henderson drew a walk and trotted down to first base lackadaisically.
“I was at the top step of the dugout, screaming at him. ‘You bleepity-bleep hot dog.’ I didn’t know who he was,” Sandt recalled. By the time the series was over, he wasn’t quite as mad at Henderson anymore. “Four days later I still didn’t know who he was, but I knew what he was going to be.”
For more information: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette