Ricky Sanchez keeps two things close to his heart: baseball and family.
It’s when the two are brought together when the young infielder is in the happiest of places.
Even when talking about being named the Western Canadian Baseball League’s Most Valuable Player in 2022, Sanchez couldn’t help but give credit to his baseball family with the Okotoks Dawgs.
“We had a pretty cool group of guys,” he told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “All of us got pretty close by the end of the summer – we just became a family, and we perform better when we perform as a family.”
The fan favourite was an integral piece of a Dawgs team that set the record in 2022 for most wins in a single WCBL season, on their way to claiming the league championship.
It put the cap on what was an incredible year for Sanchez, and the culmination of a lot of work that has him wanting more.
Growing up in Mexico, Sanchez says he started playing baseball at the age of three, and fell in love with it right away.
While he also dabbled in playing soccer, he knew early on what his passion would be, and chased it alongside his brother, Eddie.
One day, the younger Sanchez took a trip with his older brother to a showcase being put on by Dawgs Academy in Okotoks, where Eddie was hoping to make an impression.
Ricky was hooked, and after watching his brother as well as his close friend and future Cincinnati Reds infielder Alejo Lopez take the plunge and move to Canada, he knew he wanted to do the same.
At the age of 15, he made his own move.
“It was pretty scary in the beginning,” Sanchez admits. “I couldn’t communicate, as I didn’t have any English, but if you like the sport and you’re able to do the work, you get used to it.”
FEELS LIKE HOME
Sanchez remembers getting picked up by Dawgs general manager Tyler Hollick on his first day in his new home.
He says Hollick and the coaching staff was bound and determined to make him feel welcome.
“They helped me so much, not even just with baseball,” Sanchez said.
“When I moved there, it just felt like home.”
Sanchez also gives credit to friend and fellow countryman Fernando Fuentes, who moved to Okotoks at the same time and was able to be by his side through the entire transition.
The Dawgs Academy team flourished, as did their international infielder, who started getting attention from U.S. college programs.
However, Ricky had his eyes on getting to play for the WCBL Dawgs, just like his brother had during the summers of 2017 and 2018.
He got his first chance in 2019, hitting .154 with four runs batted in and a stolen base in 18 regular season games.
Sanchez followed that up by swatting .179 with four RBI and a stolen base in eight playoff games. He also scored the eventual winning run in the eighth inning of the 8-6 championship-clinching win over the Regina Red Sox on August 16.
Dawgs coach Mitch Schmidt says that was the moment Sanchez came into his own.
“When you see the picture of him, jumping up in the air, after scoring the winning run, there is that oh-so-sweet smile that is the product of all of his blood, sweat and tears, coming from the hard work he put in on and off the field,” he told Alberta Dugout Stories. “He became an example for everyone that loves the Dawgs, from his teammates in the dugout to the Junior Dawgs who are the future of this program to the fans in the stands that might include the next Ricky Sanchez who is attending a Dawgs youth camp.”
PARENTAL GUIDANCE REQUIRED
Little did everyone know, it would take a while for Sanchez to get back onto the baseball radar in Alberta.
With the COVID-19 pandemic grinding the world to a halt in 2020, it stalled his return to Okotoks as well as his start in college baseball.
In 2021, he was able to head to Crowder College, but things didn’t go according to plan, as he saw action in just four games, hitting .200 with a pair of RBI and three runs scored.
Instead of lamenting on what could have been, the 2021 Canadian Baseball Network Okotoks Scholarship winner leaned on a piece of advice from his parents to pick himself back up.
“Work hard every day,” he says they told him.
“There’s going to be tough days, but never give up.”
Sanchez transferred to Barton Community College for 2022, where he earned NJCAA All-American honorable mention honours by sporting a .442 batting average with 76 runs scored, nine home runs, 90 RBI and 27 stolen bases in 59 games, while committing just four errors on 229 total chances on the field.
It became a springboard for his summer back in Okotoks, where he hit .342 with two roundtrippers, 39 RBI and 18 stolen bases in 52 games. During the Dawgs’ championship playoff run, he finished with a line of .345, one homer, and seven RBI in seven games.
In the post-game celebrations, he was mobbed by not only his teammates, but friends and family in attendance, as well as fans who have come to adore the 5-foot-9, 170-pound sparkplug.
“It’s pretty special, especially having played there since high school,” he said. “Having all my high school friends there, my host family, it was just something special that day.”
THE WHOLE PACKAGE
From giving him a ride to his first day at Dawgs Academy to watching him hoist the Harry Hallis Trophy with the Dawgs in 2019 and 2022, Hollick is amazed at the maturation and evolution of Sanchez.
“Ricky is often recognized for his ability to play baseball, but most importantly, he is an amazing human being,” he told Alberta Dugout Stories. “He made a massive transition as a 15-year-old kid to move to Okotoks, and he quickly became a leader within our group and has made a tremendous impact on our program.”
Hollick says Sanchez is the “whole package” on the field, playing elite defense at a premium position while driving the ball to all fields, running the bases well, and showing up in the big moments.
Schmidt shares that sentiment, having the best seat in the house for the two championships.
“From the time Ricky was in grade eight to now, he has dreamed of being a Dawg and has shown everyone in the organization what attitude and effort can bring to the program,” he said.
Reached separately via text, both Hollick and Schmidt used the same two words to sum up Sanchez: a “true Dawg.”
Fuentes, who is now a coach with the Dawgs, has enjoyed watching his “humble and always smiling” friend chase the baseball dream.
“He’s like a brother to me, as we’ve been friends since were 11, and moving to Canada with him, he helped me as much as I helped him, and he’s been a very big influence on me,” he told Alberta Dugout Stories. “On the field, he’s the guy you want on your side every time, as he can make things happen offensively and defensively, he will deliver.”
BLOOD AND BASEBALL
So what does Sanchez do for an encore in 2023?
Even in talking about last season, he knows the work is far from over.
“It was a pretty great year all around, and now we’re looking forward to having an even better year,” Sanchez said. “We’re not happy with that – we want more.”
His second season at Barton is already underway, and he’s planning to lace back up with the Dawgs in the summer.
Then he will continue his post-secondary journey at Lamar University – an NCAA Division 1 school in the Southland Conference – in Beaumont, Texas.
“I went to Lamar a couple of months ago, and it just looks like a great place and a great fit for me,” Sanchez said. “The coaches and players were really nice, and I think we could do some pretty cool things.”
He also likes the idea of being closer to home, where maybe his family will be able to catch a few more games.
As he chases the dream of going to the big leagues one day, it all comes full circle for Sanchez, as he hopes to one day give something back to those who gave him so much.
“All the work that my parents do for me to have this experience is just unbelievable,” he said. “They have worked so hard for me so I can get to my dream, I’m so thankful for them.”
As much as he loves the game of baseball, it’s his love of family, both blood and baseball, that is most important.