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Before Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval sees a pitch, he pounds the on-deck circle four times with the knob of his bat, taps it four times against his toes, four times against his shins, once against his helmet, then draws a cross in the dirt to the side of home plate. He digs into the batter's box, but only for a moment before suddenly rushing out in front of it as if he might charge the mound. Face-to-face with the opposing pitcher, he smacks the barrel twice against each cleat, gives the bat a full-length rubdown, points it skyward and bangs it once more against his helmet. Only then, after a few more thwacks upside his head, is he ready to go to work.
A lot of hitters have elaborate rituals at home plate. Sandoval's is more like a piece of performance art. It makes the compulsive glove fiddling of A's infielder Nomar Garciaparra look positively understated. As Pirates pitcher Paul Maholm watched Sandoval complete his tap dance early last week at AT&T Park in San Francisco, he was more amused than annoyed. "Maybe he spends so much time outside the batter's box," Maholm said, "because he spends so little time in it."
In an age when hitters are exhorted to work counts, coax walks and swing only at the one pitch they want in the one square inch they want it, Sandoval has a problem: "I like every pitch," he says happily, "no matter where it is." Last season against the Padres he jumped in the air to hit a Jake Peavy pitch that was over his head and tomahawked it into leftfield for a single. In spring training against the Mariners he swung at a pitch in the dirt from Denny Stark and hit it on the short hop, cricket-style, for another single. In mid-June against the Angels he hit a Kevin Jepsen curveball at his ankles for an opposite-field home run. Teams have tried to pitch around Sandoval, but that is impossible, unless they throw the ball behind him. He dreams of reaching across the plate and hitting an intentional ball. "If it's close, I'll do it," he vows. "I did it in Little League once, and I got a double."
Sandoval approaches every at bat as if he's afraid that he will get only one pitch before the other team takes the ball and goes home. He swings at the first pitch a major-league-high 47% of the time—by contrast, Minnesota's Joe Mauer offers at the first pitch 7% of the time—and if he misses, it's a good bet he'll go after the next one, offering at 62% of second pitches that he sees. Nobody swings at a higher percentage of pitches except for his mentor, Giants catcher Bengie Molina. But then Molina is batting .258, a figure you might more reasonably expect from a free swinger who expands strikes zones and is constantly behind in counts. Sandoval, contrary to the conventional wisdom of the modern game, was batting .324 with 16 home runs through Sunday, thanks to (or in spite of) a hitting philosophy he describes as "see the little white thing and swing." To illustrate his strike zone, Sandoval helpfully stretches out both arms as far as they will go.
With Angels slugger Vladimir Guerrero in the twilight of his brilliant career, Sandoval, who will turn 23 next week, has emerged as baseball's preeminent bad-ball hitter, doing his part to save a species in danger of extinction. In 1988 the average major league on-base percentage was .318. By 1999 it had risen to .345, a spike that could be attributed, no doubt, to expansion, diluted pitching staffs and performance-enhancing drugs, but also to an increased emphasis on plate discipline. Longer at bats have led to longer games, and though purists can appreciate the 12-pitch confrontations, the casual fan just wants to see someone like Sandoval take his hacks. As Giants infield coach Shawon Dunston, a notorious free swinger in his playing days, puts it, "You want to see a walk? Then go watch the mailman."
Across the Bay Bridge from Oakland, the Giants have countered Moneyball with Sandoball. They rank last in the majors in walks and on-base percentage but were tied with the Rockies for the National League wild-card race, thanks largely, of course, to a pitching staff anchored by Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. "We don't have a lot of what I call 'professional hitters,'" says Giants hitting coach Carney Lansford. "They make me bang myself over the head with this clipboard sometimes." Before the trading deadline last week, the Giants acquired first baseman Ryan Garko from Cleveland and second baseman Freddy Sanchez from Pittsburgh, who should fit right in. Sanchez, for instance, is a .300 hitter for his career, but his on-base percentage is only 36 points higher, a sign that he does not discriminate much more than Sandoval.
Guerrero is an excellent bad-ball hitter because he has, in the words of his former manager Felipe Alou, "arms as long as telephone poles," which allow him to reach pitches a foot off the plate. Sandoval's bad-ball skills are a function of his sublime hand-eye coordination, developed in the garage of his boyhood home in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, where his older brother Michael would pitch him bottle caps, corn kernels and rolls of tape. Since Sandoval could hit everything, he saw no reason to let anything go by. After signing with the Giants as a 16-year-old in 2003, he officially started following in Guerrero's footsteps. One of Guerrero's cousins, Adalberto Paulino, was a teammate at Class A Augusta, and when Guerrero sent him some extra cleats, Paulino let Sandoval have a pair. This season, when the Giants played the Angels, Sandoval thanked Guerrero for the shoes. "He'll be fine," Guerrero says with an ironic smile, "as long as he swings at good pitches."
If Sandoval can ever lay off some pitches, any pitches, he might be a batting champion. He hears Lansford telling him before every at bat, "Swing at a strike." He hears Michael, who plays for the independent league Newark Bears and always takes the first pitch of his first two at bats, telling him on the phone, "Be disciplined." But Sandoval has been hearing these refrains forever. When he was at High A San Jose, where his host family was Ed and Donna Musgrave, Ed would tell him, "Patience, Pablo, patience." Sandoval would respond, "Yes, Papi, yes." Then he would step into the box and be overcome by the urge to swing. "You won't get somebody to change until they fail," said Gary Davenport, the hitting coach at San Jose.
Failure, though, is a foreign concept to Sandoval. He blazed a Pujolsian trail through the minors last season, batting .359 at San Jose, .337 at Double A Connecticut and .345 in a 41-game stint with the Giants. When he met Barry Bonds for the first time last week, Sandoval asked, "How did you get so patient?" Bonds replied, "Just wait for the pitch you like to hit." It was sound advice, except the next day Sandoval was reminded that there is no pitch he doesn't like to hit. "You see my problem?" he said.
When Bonds was the face of the Giants, the clubhouse he presided over was as quiet as a church. Now that Sandoval has replaced him as the Giants' big stick, the place feels more like a 1980s dance club. That was the mood on a recent weekday, as Come On Eileen blared from the speakers and Sandoval gyrated in the middle of the room in a spandex belly shirt, doing what appeared to be a slow-motion jog. He is 5'11", 246 pounds, with black curls creeping out from the sides of his cap and a scar under his left eye where his pet Doberman bit him when he was one. A prodigious gut spills proudly over Sandoval's waistline, as if mocking the steroid era that held this city hostage. Here is a player who is out of shape, can't tell a strike from a ball and yet has energized the Giants in a way that Bonds never could. When Sandoval was selected as one of the five candidates for the Final Vote in this year's All-Star Game, teammates wore VOTE FOR PABLO stickers on their warmup jackets and affixed signs to the backs of their jerseys, which is more than Bonds's teammates ever did for him when he was closing in on 755 home runs. Molina will not be drawn into any lengthy comparisons, though he says, "It's been a different clubhouse since Pablo got here. It's a happier place, a more enjoyable place."