What ever happened to Jays No. 1 pick Earl Sanders?
By Andrew Hendriks
Canadian Baseball Network
Ahead of the June amateur draft in 1986, right-handed pitcher, Earl Sanders was a portrait of confidence.
Having recently posted a record of 11-2 with a total of 109 strikeouts in only his third season at Jackson State University, Sanders was quickly becoming a focal point of the NCAA’s Southwestern Athletic Conference, and, at 21 years old, his lopsided efforts were drawing the attention of scouts from across North America.
Robert Braddy, his coach at Jackson State who, at one point, had as many as six of his former pupils playing in Major League Baseball at some point during a single season (1990), spoke highly of his prized hurler in a post draft interview with USA Today’s Rosco Nance.
For Braddy, Sanders reminded him of another hard throwing strikeout artist in which he had the pleasure of helping develop during his collegiate career.
“He’s as big as Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd” said Braddy of Sanders in 1986. “He has the potential to be better. He has the same temperament as Boyd, doesn’t go through those antics, but he’s a serious competitor. When he’s out there, he feels he’s going to win.”
Pitching, however, was only half of what Sanders could bring to the table. In three seasons with Jackson State, the right-handed swinging hitter recorded school bests in at-bats (495), hits (200), RBIs (145) and average with a .404 mark. If ever there was a two-way player, Sanders was it and having earned both SWAC Pitcher and Hitter of the Year honors in his last season with Jackson State, the 220 pound prospect’s potential had clubs from across major league baseball intrigued at what laid ahead for the native of Moss Point, Miss.
Coming off of a franchise best 99-win campaign, the Toronto Blue Jays picked Sanders as their first round selection in the 1986, 26th overall.
Going earlier in the first round ahead of Jackson State’s prized jewel were Lee Stevens to the California Angels (22nd over-all), Matt Williams (3rd to the San Francisco Giants) and Cooperstown candidate, Gary Sheffield (sixth to the Milwaukee Brewers) had all earned selections within the same class.
From there, Pat Gillick and Jays management opted to make him a full time pitcher, shipping their promising young hurler off to St. Catharines Blue Jays where, along with Francisco Cabrera and a 17 year-old Pat Hentgen, Sanders helped pilot the Blue Jays New York Penn league affiliate to a 48-28 regular season record under manager Cloyd Boyer and their only NYPL title.
With a dominant start to his pro career in the books, Toronto dispatched Sanders to single-A Dunedin in 1987, where he would spend parts of the next three seasons in between stints with double-A Knoxville. Both the consistency and strong play that had intrigued scouts and managers alike ahead of his draft class was beginning to wane.
Come 1989, Sanders had made the conversion from starter to full-time reliever and although the switch had yielded a string of promising results, his performance failed to net the first rounder a promotion past double-A.
Three seasons, two transactions -- one year with the Atlanta Braves, the other in the Houston Astros system -- and a career ending shoulder injury later, Sanders was out of pro ball all together, becoming one of many first round selections that never panned out at the major league level.
During his season seasons in the minors Sanders went 30-41 with a 3.83 ERA and 12 saves in 199 games. He walked 350 and struck out 427 in 556 1/3 innings.
Although baseball had dealt the once promising young prospect a bad hand over the course of his pro career, his passion for the game remained intact despite the rigors of a seven-year minor league journey.
In 2002, Sanders returned to college-level ball, serving as head coach for the Tougaloo Bulldogs of the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference, a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Divison-1 outpost in Madison County, Miss.
Since then, the veteran journeyman has served in a variety of different coaching positions with Tougaloo, effectively guiding and mentoring the legions of young talent who pass through the schools program throughout their collegiate playing careers.
Serving as the pitching coach for the Bulldogs in 2014, one of his pupils, Rodney McKay, was named to the GCAC All Conference Team. His selection became Tougaloo’s first baseball product to receive such honors, thus establishing the D1 College as a baseball destination for those looking to further develop their skills on the diamond.
In 2016, Sanders returns as head coach of the Bulldogs, where, at age 50, he consumes to pass along his wealth of knowledge and professional experience.
McKay, a year removed from having made his first post-collegiate playing appearance with the Western Major Baseball Leagues Yorkton Cardinals (Saskatchewan), will be looking to build off a promising first-year performance North of the border.
In the past, major leaguee products such as Sean Wooten, Jim Henderson and Andrew Albers all made appearances within the heavily scouted WMBL prior to signing with major league clubs.
Perhaps McKay, who can attribute a fair portion of his collegiate success to the influence of his veteran coaching staff, will follow in their footsteps.