Adapted from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, August 10, 2009
BEFORE GIANTS THIRD BASEMAN PABLO SANDOVAL SEES A PITCH, HE POUNDS THE ON-DECK CIRCLE FOUR TIMES WITH THE KNOB of his bat, taps the bat 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 performance art, delivered by one of baseball's great entertainers, a 5' 11", 240-pound merrymaker with black curls, a broad grin and a scar under his left eye where his pet Doberman bit him when he was one year old. Sandoval will begin his on-field activities by running out for batting practice shouting, "¡¡Hola!! ¡¡Hola!! ¡¡Hola!!" He has put a lot of work into losing weight, but a prodigious gut spills proudly over his waistline, as if mocking the steroid era that once held the Bay Area hostage. "Pablo's a Little Leaguer who's in the majors," says his older brother, Michael.
That Little Leaguer became a history maker with a stirring three-home-run game in the World Series opener, a performance that added majesty to Sandoval's already outstanding 2012 postseason and that had grown men and women wearing panda masks and dancing in the AT&T Park aisles. He has that effect on people.
SANDOVAL GREW UP IN PUERTO CABELLA, Venezuela, and was signed by the Giants at age 16. When he was 20 and playing for the San Jose Giants of the Class A California League, he lived with a host family, Ed and Donna Musgrave. The Musgraves adored Sandoval, as did the fans in San Jose, who sang along to his Spanish entrance music before at bats and chanted his name. One night Sandoval asked Donna, "Mami, why do they like me so?"
She explained that his exuberance engendered affection, and Sandoval concluded that he should never let the smile fade from his face. A player's popularity can be measured in part by the quantity and caliber of nicknames bestowed upon him. Sandoval has gone through Zorro, Little Money, Fat Ichiro, Round Mound of Pound and, most notably, Kung Fu Panda. Pitcher Barry Zito saw the movie in the summer of 2008, and as he watched the lovable bear morph into an unlikely superhero, he was reminded of his playful but potent teammate. The Giants turned Zito's pet name into a marketing bonanza. Fans wear panda T-shirts along with the masks and have even showed up at AT&T Park outfitted in full panda costume with black-and-white fur. "When you first get to the majors, it's so much fun," 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."
Sandoval is an exotic breed himself, an ambidextrous switch-hitting third baseman who is naturally lefthanded but taught himself to throw right as a child because he wanted to play shortstop like a fellow Venezuelan, major leaguer Omar Vizquel. "That's the Pablo that I am," he has said.
After signing with the Giants, Sandoval tore through their minor league system, along the way batting .359 at San Jose and then .337 at Class AA Connecticut. Major league pitching did not seem to faze him, either, as he hit .345 over 41 games as a rookie in 2008 and .330 in his first full season a year later. But Sandoval slumped badly in '10, his average falling to .268, and he was only a bit contributor when the Giants won the World Series.
Sandoval entered a workout regimen that winter called Operation Panda, and he swore off the late-night arepas (cornmeal patties stuffed with meat and cheese) that his mother used to prepare for him. Sandoval shed some 30 pounds and his average rose to .315 in 2011, but he broke his right hamate bone early in the season and played only 117 games. This year he played only 108 due to a left hamate injury and then a hamstring strain, but he was at full strength when it mattered most. In the 2010 playoffs Sandoval batted only 17 times and mustered three hits, none a home run. This fall he was a linchpin of the Giants' offense even before his World Series heroics, batting .320 over the first two rounds with three home runs, four doubles and nine runs batted in. All told he wound up setting a Giants record for hits in a postseason.