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It was crazy, bro." That much Pablo Sandoval can confirm. But he knows little else about the woman who dashed off the sidewalk on McAllister Street during the Giants' World Series parade, jumped on him lips first and tried to kiss him.
Sandoval doesn't know that the woman in question, a 20-year-old college student named Andrea Vasquez, was also on hand for the Giants' World Series parade in 2010, and that she "completely melted down" (her words) when Sandoval happened to look the other way as he rolled past her. He is also unaware that Vasquez cried when she missed a chance to meet him before a 2010 game, and that she had run around her house screaming when he began following her on Twitter that year.
Sandoval remembers the kiss though. It was three days after the Giants had completed their blink-and-you-missed-it, four-game blitz of the Tigers, and the World Series MVP and his girlfriend were riding in the back of a black Audi R8 convertible. Wearing aviators, a WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS hoodie and hat cocked to the right, Sandoval was offering the crowd fist-pumps, smiles and waves when Vasquez ambushed the car. "Can I have a hug?" she asked, then threw her arms around him and went in for the kiss. As she was pulled away by a guard, a stunned yet still smiling Sandoval yelled, "She f------ wanna kiss me!"
Crazy has become routine in the relationship between Sandoval and Giants fans. Since his arrival in San Francisco in 2008, the switch-hitting 26-year-old cantaloupe of a third baseman has inspired legions of otherwise self-respecting adults to go out in public dressed as panda bears. Last month there was the old lady at the autograph session in Burlingame, wearing bright-orange lipstick and eyeliner to match, who climbed over the table and covered him in kisses, shouting, "Pablo! I love you!" There was also the man who had Sandoval's face painted on his motorcycle. "Look," he told Sandoval, "I did this for you!" ("For me?" Sandoval replied. "So does that mean you're going to give it to me?" The man declined.)
The Giants were built to win championships, but they also seem designed as ambassadors for the city they represent. "I think if you went around on a game day and asked five or 10 fans who their favorite player is, you would get five or 10 different answers," says general manager Brian Sabean. There is catcher Buster Posey, the clean-cut, hypercompetent prodigy. There is righthander Tim Lincecum, with his effortless brilliance and his affinity for a certain smokable, psychoactive plant that is deeply embedded in the city's culture. There are bearded relievers Brian Wilson, the performance artist, and Sergio Romo, the compulsive photo bomber, as well as lefthander Barry Zito, the surfing and guitar-playing yogi. Says Sabean, "They all have their own unique ability to connect with the fans."
And then there's Sandoval, whose appeal transcends demographics. Who among us doesn't love a free-swinging fat man, especially when he has an omnipresent smile and gives us an excuse to wear funny hats? After Sandoval's epic performance in Game 1 against the Tigers—Sandoval became just the fourth player in history to hit three home runs in one World Series game—Pandamania reached an alltime high. "If you don't want to be famous," Sandoval says of life as a San Francisco Giant, "this isn't for you."
Before he earned money and fame and fans, Sandoval entertained himself with a stick and a dog. As a toddler growing up near the Caribbean coast in Venezuela, Sandoval began swinging a baseball bat, just like his older brother, Michael. One day the family's Doberman approached, and Sandoval, all of one year old, smacked it with the bat. The dog bit young Pablo's face, leaving a scar that remains visible just below his left eye. The next day the dog approached Sandoval again. He took another swing—and this time the dog bit his thigh. For the second day in a row the family rushed young Pablo to the emergency room. The following day the dog again ventured too close to the bat-wielding baby. Another swing, another bite (this time on his behind), another trip to the hospital. "I'm a fighter," says Sandoval. "You come at me, I'm coming back at you." (Michael offers a different perspective. "He was just a bad kid," he says. "That's all it was.")
The point is, even at that age, Pablo could swing it. The boys painted a strike zone in the family's garage, then pitched to each other and swung plastic bats. Sometimes they used plastic baseballs. Other times they wadded up pieces of paper, tied the mass together with nylon string and covered it with a sock. Though five years younger, Pablo made solid contact off his brother, who would himself go on to be a minor leaguer. This, he says, is how he learned to hit the fastball.
As Sandoval was growing up, Venezuela native Omar Vizquel was beginning his run of nine consecutive Gold Gloves as a shortstop with the Mariners and the Indians. Sandoval decided that since Vizquel was a shortstop, he needed to become a shortstop too. Never mind that Sandoval's spherical physique made him a better fit for catcher or first base. Never mind that he was a natural lefty. At eight years old, Sandoval taught himself to throw righthanded, and he used his instincts and quick feet to compensate for his heft.
His time at shortstop didn't last, but Sandoval developed into a switch-hitting catcher and signed with the Giants in 2003, at 16. He made his major league debut five years later as a utilityman, splitting time among first base, third base and behind the plate. Immediately, San Francisco fans loved him. He bounced around the dugout, bounded onto the field and swung at nearly every pitch that entered his orbit. He connected often, batting .345 with three home runs in 41 games as a rookie. Even when he didn't, fans swooned. "He's just a big kid playing the game," says manager Bruce Bochy. "It's infectious."