Sandoval comes across as Sammy Sosa at his chest-thumping best, running onto the field for batting practice shouting, "¡Hola! ¡¡Hola!! ¡¡¡Hola!!!" In one game this season, when second baseman Juan Uribe hit his first homer of the season, Sandoval persuaded everyone to ignore Uribe when he got back to the dugout. Uribe was confused, but after a few seconds Sandoval cracked up and they all leaped up with high fives. "When you first get to the majors, it's so much fun," Giants lefty Barry Zito says. "Then time goes by, and you get jaded. The idea is always to be who you were when you first got here. I think we look at Pablo and he reminds us of that."
When Sandoval was in San Jose, and fans were already starting to chant his name and sing along to his Spanish entrance music, he once asked his host mother, Donna Musgrave, "Mami, why do they like me so?" She tried to explain that his exuberance engendered affection, and Sandoval concluded that he should never let the smile fade from his face. A player's popularity can often be measured by the quantity and caliber of nicknames bestowed upon him. Sandoval, in his second season, has gone through Zorro, Little Money, Round Mound of Pound and, most notably, Kung Fu Panda. Zito saw the movie Kung Fu Panda last summer, and as he watched the lovable bear morph into an unlikely superhero, he was reminded of his playful but potent new teammate, who's also full of surprises. Sandoval is an exotic breed himself, an ambidextrous, switch-hitting third baseman who can play catcher and first, who lives with his mother, in addition to his wife, Yoletzade, and one-year-old daughter, Yoleadny. He prefers to do interviews in English even though he is more comfortable speaking Spanish. He is naturally lefthanded, but he grew up wanting to play shortstop like fellow Venezuelan Omar Vizquel, so he taught himself to throw righthanded, which is how he still plays. "That's the Pablo that I am," he has said.
The Giants have taken Zito's pet name for Sandoval and turned it into a marketing bonanza. Fans wear panda T-shirts and panda masks, and have even showed up at AT&T Park outfitted in full panda costume with black and white fur. On Aug. 12 there will be a sleepover for kids on the field after the game, and Kung Fu Panda will be shown on the scoreboard. The Giants have waited a long time for this kind of player, a slugger they can promote without backlash, an ambassador they can book for community events.
"This is not about Barry," says Giants president Larry Baer. "It's about the fact that we have a star player who is so innocent and pure in his approach to the game, whose personality is the perfect antidote to everything that has gone on. Guys play different ways to give themselves an edge. Barry liked to play a little bit angry, with kind of a chip. Pablo is more like Willie Mays in that Say Hey, stickball-in-the-streets mode. But there are multiple ways to greatness."
There is a seriousness to Sandoval's approach too. The jitterbug he does before every at bat, for instance, is intended not to irritate pitchers but to honor the dead. He taps his barrel four times: once for his grandmother, Josefa; once for his grandfather, Luis; and once for his baby sister, Diana, who died in a car accident when she was six months old. (The fourth tap, he says, is to honor God.) Sometimes, when Sandoval looks at Yoleadny, he sees Diana's tough and rambunctious personality pouring through. After a game last week he stayed up with Yoleadny in their San Francisco apartment watching Kung Fu Panda for the first time. "It's true," Sandoval says. "The panda is a lot like me."
Both are animated, with karate-chop swings and elementary school appeal. "Pablo's a Little Leaguer who's playing in the majors," says his brother Michael. In the Giants' clubhouse, meanwhile, the debate rages over walks versus hits, on-base percentage versus batting average. Lansford wants his hitters to be selective, to wear out pitchers. Dunston wants them aggressive. The argument has a cultural bent. In the U.S. players are taught from Little League on to wait for their pitch. In Latin America they hit whatever pitch is thrown to them. "Down there you don't hear the word selective," says Alou. "Selective service reminds you of the army."
Sandoval is no sociologist, but for at least one reason he believes his sport could use a few more bad-ball hitters swinging from the heels, letting the bat head fly. "The games," he says, "would be a lot quicker."
Now on SI.com
Can the Yankees end the Red Sox' stranglehold on them? Find out at SI.com/bonus