Sandoval awoke in his downtown San Francisco apartment on Oct. 24 feeling calm but anxious, ready for Game 1 of the World Series. He remembered watching from the dugout as other players carried the Giants to their title in 2010, and he remembered the promises he'd made to his trainers, his family, himself. "Everything I did for two years," he says, "was about getting to that day. Everything."
Before every game, Sandoval and his brother Michael break down the opposing pitcher's approach and tendencies. Sandoval joked, "My son is pitching today." Detroit's Game 1 starter would be the very intimidating Justin Verlander, the 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner. "Usually, we make a plan," Sandoval says of his conversations with Michael. "With Verlander, you can't have a plan.
But there was reason to be confident. Sandoval had faced Verlander just once in his career, in this year's All-Star Game, and had whacked a triple off the Tigers' ace. "We just decided, if the pitch was anywhere close to the plate, I was swinging," Sandoval says. (This was no newsflash; according to FanGraphs.com, Sandoval swung at 57% of the pitches he saw this season, the highest rate among National League players with more than 400 plate appearances.)
Yet on the first pitch he saw from Verlander, in the bottom of the first, Sandoval took a strike. He fouled off the next pitch. Then he turned on a fastball at the letters and sent it screaming 421 feet, into the bedlam of the centerfield bleachers at AT&T Park. Two innings later Sandoval got hold of another Verlander fastball sailing low and away and poked it over the fence in left. Cameras showed Verlander mouthing Wow as the ball fell into the crowd.
Verlander was gone by the time Sandoval came up again, in the fifth inning. This time he reached down for a breaking ball that reliever Al Alburquerque tried to put in the dirt, launching it 435 feet to center. With his three home runs Sandoval earned a place among the game's immortals. Only three other players have gone deep three times in a World Series game: Babe Ruth (twice), Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols.
After the game, Sandoval called the owner of Limon, a Peruvian restaurant in San Francisco's Latino-and-hipster-dominated Mission District. That afternoon he'd gone there for a pregame meal of chicharron de pollo. Now the restaurant was good luck. Even though they usually closed at 10 p.m., the owners kept the place open so Sandoval could return that night. But Sandoval picked at his empanadas in near silence, staring off into space. "It was like he didn't think it was real," says his agent, Gustavo Vasquez.
To confirm that he wasn't dreaming, Sandoval turned on the television when he got home. As night transitioned to morning, Sandoval sat on the couch, his living room lit by the glow of the screen, flipping between the MLB Network and ESPN to watch himself homer over and over again. When Michael tried to engage him in conversation, Sandoval just shook his head. "I can't believe it," he said. "I can't believe it."
Game 1 of the World Series was on a Wednesday. The Giants completed their sweep by Sunday, a Fall Classic that ended too quickly and without enough drama to fully grab the imagination of a public distracted by the upcoming presidential election and a looming hurricane on the east coast. (According to Nielsen it was the lowest-rated World Series ever.) Even for Sandoval, the memories are surreal. It's late on a November afternoon at his newly purchased and sparsely furnished South Florida home. The Kung Fu Panda is sitting by his pool, the sun setting behind him, the reality of his new stardom still not quite sinking in. Whenever he walks by the World Series MVP trophy, he pauses, sometimes shaking his head.
Perhaps his historic three-homer game was an act of athletic heroism. Perhaps it was a statistical anomaly. Either way, it happened, and "Everything," Sandoval says, "has changed." That's an overstatement, perhaps. Sandoval, who is heading into the second year of a three-year, $17.2 million contract, was already rich and beloved. Now he just has more autographs to sign and interviews to give, and he gets to hear his name mentioned in more rarefied circles. Still, his appreciation for the moment is clear.
Sandoval goes back inside to pick up his niece, and he swings her around as she gleefully squeals. Tomorrow he'll be on a plane to Venezuela; in a few days he'll be playing winter ball; and in a few months he'll report to spring training to begin another season. Someday, when the full story of his career is written, he'll know whether his performance in Game 1 was an isolated feat or one legendary night among many. But for now, he's enjoying it for what it was: the night that turned a lovable crowd favorite into something more.