About a month after his call-up, Sandoval scored a run by jumping out of the way of a tag from Dodgers catcher Danny Ardoin. After the game, in reference to that play, Zito referred to the portly-but-agile Sandoval for the first time as "the Kung Fu Panda."
With that, a phenomenon was born.
Martin Man sits at his dining room table in San Francisco's Ingleside neighborhood, beaming as he shows off his collection of Sandoval-inspired merchandise. "Everybody loves the Panda hats," he says. "Some people even think the Panda is the official mascot of the Giants."
In many ways it is. AT&T Park is filled with Lincecum-inspired wigs and Wilsonian beards, but no image has become more associated with Giants supporters than that of dancing, screaming, Panda-hat-wearing superfans. The rise of the hat is a uniquely San Franciscan tale. Animal hats have long been popular in East Asia, particularly in Japan and Korea, and panda hats in particular are popular among tourists in China's Sichuan province, home to more than 30% of the world's pandas. A vendor in San Francisco's Chinatown carried the hats, and in 2009 a few Giants fans began wearing them to the park in honor of Sandoval. Television camera operators took notice. So did Man.
A Wells Fargo adviser by day, Man, a Hong Kong native, had run an online direct-mail shop as a side business, selling mostly electronics and novelty items. He carried panda hats too, but they rarely sold. But with Sandoval surging in late 2009—he hit 25 home runs and finished second in the NL batting race (.330) in his first full big league season—Man filled a duffel bag with the hats and parked his car near AT&T Park. He put one of the hats on top of a bat, held it up in the air and stood still as fans approached with cash in hand. The first night he sold 100 hats—$15 for one, $25 for two. Before long he'd relaunched his online store with a new signature product and name: PandaHat.com.
"This is a funky city," Man says. "In a lot of places, I don't think as many people would be willing to wear something like the panda hat." Even when Sandoval slumped through much of 2010, the Panda hat business kept booming. "Everyone always loves him," says Man. "It doesn't matter if he's good or bad."
In 2010 he was mostly bad. Out of shape, out of rhythm, and newly divorced, Sandoval hit .224 over the last month of the regular season, finishing with just 13 home runs and a .268 average, and he batted .176 in six postseason games. "Everything came too fast for him," says Michael. "He gets called up and everybody loves him, people are all wearing the hats, and then he falls off. People started talking s---. He wasn't ready for that."
Bochy benched Sandoval when the Giants faced the Rangers in the World Series, starting veteran Juan Uribe instead. San Francisco won in five games, and even though he had just three at bats, Sandoval never complained. But in the off-season, he made a promise to his family, his teammates and his friends. "Next time, it's not going to be like that," he told them. "Next time I'm going to be ready."
Sandoval's home run stroke returned in 2011, when he hit 23, but for much of this season he looked like a candidate for another postseason benching. In May he underwent surgery to fix a broken hamate bone in his left hand. In June he faced allegations of sexual assault from a woman who reportedly said she was too intoxicated to consent to an encounter they had. (No arrests were made, and police said there was insufficient evidence that Sandoval had committed a crime.) Soon after Sandoval returned from the disabled list, Bochy tried playing him at first base ("Like in Little League," the manager told reporters, "you put the fat guy over there and you [don't worry] about injuries), but Sandoval strained his hamstring. Criticism of his weight—he's listed at 240—continued. "He's just built in a way where it's easy for him to put on weight," says Greg (Sweets) Oliver, a trainer who has worked with Sandoval in the off-season. "If you have that body type, and you're playing baseball, where you're getting off late at night, and the clubhouse food isn't good, and you can't do cardio because you have to be fresh, it's tough."
"He does work hard at [losing weight]," says Sabean, "but sometimes, especially during the season, it's just a losing battle." Still, Sandoval's swing returned in mid-September, and he hit .333 over the last 16 games of the season. With the Giants down 3--1 to the Cardinals and facing elimination in the NLCS, Sandoval homered in Game 5, then doubled in Games 6 and 7, all San Francisco wins.