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Pirates' top pick 'not oblivious' to critics

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'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Monday, June 22, 2009

UNIVERSITY PARK - The lean young man, barely 21 years old, stepped to the top of the dugout Sunday and looked around a near-empty ball park. Game time for the first professional start in Tony Sanchez's baseball career was less than two hours away.

"This is a completely different world," said Sanchez, the top draft pick of the Pirates, who selected him fourth overall on June 9.

Just four days after Sanchez was drafted, he earned a $2.5 million signing bonus from the cost-conscious Pirates, becoming the first of this year's opening-round picks to agree to a deal. Critics say the transaction represents ownership's reluctance to spend for higher-rated players.

"I'm not oblivous," Sanchez said of the critics. "I know what's out there, and I know what people are saying. But I'm not going to try and impress anybody. I'm going to work hard, and I'm going to try and help my team win."

He did just that late Saturday night in his pro debut. Sanchez, a late-game replacement, delivered the game-winning hit in the ninth inning at Williamsport.

Sanchez was the starting catcher Sunday night for the Short Season Single-A State College Spikes in their New York-Penn League game against the Williamsport Crosscutters at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. He went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in a 4-3 loss before 4,400 fans.

Still, State College manager Gary Robinson praised the way the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Sanchez plays the game.

"His hitting actions are good, they're loose," he said. "He's certainly very athletic. His defensive skills are a plus. He's got a lot to learn, though."

After leading Boston College as a junior this past season with a .346 average and 14 home runs, Sanchez joined the pro ranks a year early. But he said he's in no hurry to move up the Pirates' ladder.

"It's a learning process," he said. "It's going to take a lot of time. Hopefully, sooner then later, but I'm in no rush.

"I know people have thought I shouldn't have been picked with the fourth pick, that maybe that was a little bit of an overdraft. But I have the opportunity to play at the next level and achieve my ultimate goal of being a successful catcher in the big leagues, and that's what I'm going to do."

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington has said that Sanchez "plays the game the right way."

Sanchez, a Miami native, produced a .326 batting average with 24 home runs and 124 RBI in 161 games over three years at Boston College.

"Everyone's going to have their critics," Sanchez said. "I'm just worried about what I can do, not what everybody else thinks.

"In a few years down the road, hopefully, I'll be where I want to be, and those critics will look back and say, 'Oh, we were wrong.' "

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