(Reprinted with permission) Baseball helped U.S. District Court Judge Juan R. Sanchez, of Philadelphia, make friends when he moved from Puerto Rico to New York City at age 12, and it was the inspirational example of Roberto Clemente that ignited his passion for public service. Today, Judge Sanchez plays baseball in the Men’s Senior Baseball League and follows his granddaughters’ little league games.
He is featured in the latest installment of the federal courts’ video series Pathways to the Bench that highlights judges who have overcome personal challenges on their way to serving in the judiciary. In these four-minute profiles, they share with young people some of the life lessons they have learned through adversity. Click on the link ‘Pathways to the Bench’ above to view a video outlining Judge Sanchez’ journey. Below is a recent conversation we had with the Judge.
By Steve LaMontia, Director of Communications
Juan Sanchez is a baseball fan. He has been one all of his life. Juan came to the United States from Puerto Rico in 1968 at the age of 12 and settled into the Bronx with his family and became an instant Yankee fan, though his understandable idol growing up on the island was Roberto Clemente. Juan currently plays in the Greater Philadelphia MSBL at the age of 62 but this story is about more than playing ball into one’s 60’s or beyond. Juan is now addressed as United States District Court Judge Juan R. Sanchez of Philadelphia.
“We came to the United States in 1968 and I couldn’t speak English. It was very hard but we learned quickly so that we could survive,” stated Judge Sanchez. “I had never played organized baseball, though I had a few skills, but didn’t play on a competitive team until high school. Yes, we had a few teams in the Bronx that played one another before I went to high school. I then went on to City College and played a bigger role on a more integrated team, which was a real life’s lesson in itself. After college my studies and my life took over and baseball was relegated to being a fan for many years.”
I asked Judge Sanchez how a 12 year old boy who couldn’t speak English ended up sitting on a U.S. District Court bench. “We happened to be back in Puerto Rico for the holidays when Roberto Clemente’s plane went down killing him on December 31, 1972 as he was flying a goodwill mission to deliver goods and food to people in Nicaragua. The island was devastated in grief. He was doing something selfless and worthwhile and I made up my mind right there to do something positive with my life and to make a difference.”
Judge Sanchez is now a second baseman in the MSBL, though he will be spending 2018 away from the diamond to follow his granddaughter’s budding softball career, one of his nine grandchildren, including a set of triplets. “I can always keep playing but I only have one chance to follow her career so I will get to as many of her games as I can. My family is very important to me so I need to seize this opportunity to be with her as much as possible. By the time I play again I’ll be eligible for the 65 and over division,” chuckled Sanchez.
Like many of us Judge Sanchez spent years playing softball, including on a team of judges called ‘The Black Robes’, as a means of staying close to the game he loved but in 2008 things changed for him. “I attended a Phillies Fantasy Camp and loved it. I was then introduced to Bob Gallo, who was playing in the South Jersey MSBL, and we became lifelong friends. I started with the MSBL that year with Bob as my manager and we have been playing alongside one another ever since.”
Judge Sanchez has never had the opportunity to participate in any of the MSBL national tournaments, such as the World Series in Arizona or the Fall Classic in Florida, but hopes to change that someday soon. “A lot of the players from our league play in those tournaments but we can never get enough of our team to go.” I then informed him of our Player Pool and that we would be happy to get him on board with a team so that he can experience the events. He wasn’t aware of that opportunity. “That would be great. Maybe I can get to one of the events this year. I’m sure I’ll miss playing by the time October and November roll around.”
Judge Sanchez remains a Yankee fan though he still roots for his hometown Phillies. “I don’t think they will see each other in this year’s World Series but I hope they both have a successful season.”
Judge Sanchez stated that he has never met Roberto Clemente and never had the opportunity to see him play in person but he still remembers the black and white images of watching his hero on television back in Puerto Rico. “Clemente made such an impact on the people in Puerto Rico and served as an inspiration to everyone to do good and to be better. I will never forget him and am thankful for the positive influence he had on me.”