The fall and rise of Kung Fu Panda

May 31st, 2019

Walk into the Giants clubhouse, and one of the first things you’ll see is a trio of banners mounted high on the ceiling displaying the 2010, 2012 and 2014 World Series championships. Walk into the Giants clubhouse, and one of the first things you’ll hear is , the boisterous infielder who helped bring those three titles to the franchise.

Sandoval’s booming voice reverberates throughout the room before games as he banters with teammates, belts lyrics from his favorite reggaeton jams and occasionally weighs in on whatever sporting event everyone is fixated on, such as Tiger Woods’ remarkable win at the Masters a few weeks ago.

“Tiger’s back!” Sandoval said that Sunday morning.

So is the Panda.

Sandoval is at home with the Giants in a way he never quite was after he signed a five-year, $95 million contract with the Red Sox in 2014. Not only did Sandoval leave behind the organization that signed and developed him, he burned his share of bridges on his way out of town. Five years ago, a return to San Francisco would have seemed out of the question.

But things are different now, and so is he.

“One of the great qualities we have is forgiveness,” says. “We’re all happy that he’s here.”

The rise of Kung Fu Panda

Sandoval has loved baseball since he was 4 years old. Growing up in Venezuela, he and his older brother, Michael, a former Twins farmhand, used to go home from school and practice in an empty garage, using a broom handle to swing at makeshift balls made from wads of tape.

A natural lefty, Sandoval learned to throw right-handed at age 9 so he could play shortstop like his childhood hero, Omar Vizquel. He later became a switch-hitting catcher and began attracting interest from scouts. In 2003, Sandoval sat down with his parents, former Giants director of international operations Rick Ragazzo and scout Ciro Villalobos to sign his first professional baseball contract at 16 years old.

“If he keeps working hard like he is right now and doesn’t stop, he can be in the big leagues in four or five years,” Ragazzo told Sandoval’s mom, Amelia.

Sandoval made his U.S. debut with the Rookie-level Giants in Arizona the following year, though adjusting to life away from home proved difficult.

“The hardest part is when you arrive as a teenager and you don’t know any English,” Sandoval said in Spanish. “You come to a different culture, a different country, without any family by your side. It’s one of the things that’s tough when you’re a kid, but as time goes on, you try to handle things like a professional.”

Still, Sandoval clung to Ragazzo’s words, aiming to make a quick climb through the Giants’ farm system. He turned heads after batting .330 in 75 games with Class A Salem-Keizer in 2005 and represented the Giants at the 2006 Futures Game in Pittsburgh.

When the Giants decided they wanted to move Sandoval from catcher to third base, he worked with first-base coach Jose Alguacil, who served as the organization’s roving Minor League infield instructor from 2007-14, to make the transition.

“We had to do everything we could to make sure Pablo could keep going,” Alguacil said in Spanish. “Pablo has always been an extraordinary worker. He’s never said no to work. We really worked hard, and that’s when everyone started to see what Pablo could do defensively.”

Sandoval’s efforts were finally rewarded on Aug. 14, 2008, when he debuted with the Giants at age 22. He hit .345 with 14 extra-base hits and 24 RBIs in 145 at-bats, quickly endearing himself to the fans in San Francisco with his infectious personality and surprisingly athletic frame.

In a game against the Dodgers on Sept. 19, 2008, Sandoval scored from second after making an acrobatic leap to avoid a tag from catcher Danny Ardoin. Barry Zito, the winning pitcher that night, later compared Sandoval to Kung Fu Panda, the hit DreamWorks animation film that was released that summer.

His trademark nickname was born.

“I think the fans see his love for the game, for people,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “Plus, he’s a robust guy that people pull for. He’s an easy guy to pull for, because he’s like a panda. Fans just probably want to hug him and pull for him.”

Comeback No. 1

But Sandoval’s weight led to other not-so-cuddly moments with the Giants. He hit .330 in 2009 and finished second to Hanley Ramirez in the National League batting race, but he regressed in 2010 amid concerns about his poor physical condition, and was relegated to the bench during the Giants’ postseason run. The Giants beat the Rangers to clinch their first World Series title in San Francisco, but Sandoval started only one of the five games and went 0-for-3.

“In 2010, I learned a lot from watching the game from the bench and used it as a learning opportunity,” Sandoval said. “I just hoped that I’d get another opportunity to play in the World Series so I could show what I could do.”

When that opportunity arrived just two years later, Sandoval seized it. In Game 1 of the 2012 World Series against the Tigers, Sandoval crushed three home runs in his first three at-bats, joining Reggie Jackson, Babe Ruth and Albert Pujols as the only players to go deep three times in a World Series game. The first two homers came off then-Tigers ace Justin Verlander, the reigning American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner, who was 7-0 with a 0.69 ERA in his previous seven starts.

The second one was especially impressive, as he crushed a 95-mph fastball, low and away, to the opposite field. Television cameras caught a stunned Verlander mouthing “Wow” as the ball left the ballpark.

“You’re facing Verlander and all this talk about his season,” former Giants teammate and current Ranger Hunter Pence says. “To have Pablo step up on the biggest stage against one of the biggest pitchers, it just goes to show you the level of his talent and his skill to hit -- and his skill to hit in a big moment.”

After going 8-for-16 with those three homers and four RBIs in the Giants' four-game sweep of the Tigers, Sandoval was named the World Series MVP.

“He looked determined to just make an unbelievable comeback like he did,” Bochy says. “That was not an easy thing to do when we did put him on the bench in 2010. At the time it was the right thing to do, and he learned from that. He got himself in great shape the next year. He got his game back, and he got that sense of determination that came out in that series.”

Sandoval likely would have added another World Series MVP trophy to his collection in 2014 if not for an otherworldly performance from left-hander . Sandoval batted .429 against the Royals and went 3-for-3 in the decisive Game 7 at Kauffman Stadium. He caught the final out of the World Series and immediately dropped to the ground, a moment that heralded the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.

A surprising decision

When Sandoval hit free agency that November, he discussed his options with Alguacil, who urged him to stay with the Giants. But Sandoval ultimately couldn’t resist the allure of something new.

At his introductory press conference at Fenway Park on Nov. 25, 2014, Sandoval was asked why he chose to accept Boston's offer over a similar one from San Francisco.

“It was a tough decision for me, you know,” he recalled. “It took me a long time to be sure that I was going to make the right decision. It was similar, but the Giants gave me the opportunity to be in the big leagues, opened the door, taught me how to respect the game. The Giants fans are one of the best. But at the same time, I want a new challenge.”

But injuries and under-performance marred Sandoval’s tenure with the Red Sox, and he came under heavy scrutiny for his weight. On April 9, 2016, he swung so hard at a pitch from Blue Jays right-hander R.A. Dickey that he broke his belt. Sandoval, who was making his first start of the season after losing his starting third-base job to Travis Shaw that spring, finished the game 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and an error.

He was, quite literally, a bust.

“No ballplayer wants to fail,” Alguacil says. “Pablo went to a different city, a city where there’s a lot of pressure from the press. Maybe he didn’t have the support that he had here.”

Over parts of three years and only 161 games, Sandoval batted .237 with a .646 OPS and just 14 home runs. Midway through the 2017 season, the Red Sox decided to cut their losses and released him despite owing him nearly $48 million.

Sandoval now admits that he has second-guessed his decision to sign with Boston.

“I won’t lie to you,” he said. “If I had the opportunity to do it again, I wouldn’t do it. It was a lesson in my career. I don’t regret it, but at the same time, I would say, ‘Why did I do it? What was I thinking at the time?’ This team gave me my first opportunity, and even my second one, and they deserved for me to stay.”

Comeback No. 2

Sandoval saw his release coming, and when it finally happened, he set his sights on returning to the Giants, who were in the middle of a 98-loss season and in need of a third baseman to replace Eduardo Nunez, who was expected to be dealt at the July 31 Trade Deadline.

Although Sandoval had a staunch advocate in Bochy, some of his teammates weren’t as eager to welcome him back, especially after he infamously told Bleacher Report in spring 2015 that it was “not hard at all” to leave the Giants since he’d only miss Bochy and Pence.

“He didn’t leave on the best note, so I think some of us, including myself, were like, ‘Really?’ Posey said.

Bochy, however, was steadfast in wanting him back.

“I just knew that this guy still had game left,” Bochy said. “I knew what a good person he was. Not just me, but the front office, so we got him back here. I knew that he could bring value to our club.”

Sandoval signed a Minor League deal on July 22, 2017, officially kicking off his redemption tour. He quickly proved to be a more selfless teammate this time around, even with those who were still working their way up to the Majors.

Before he was added to the Giants’ roster, Sandoval was sent to the Minors to accrue 40 to 50 at-bats and prove he could still be a productive hitter. His first stop was Class A Advanced San Jose, where he appeared in three games and struck up a friendship with .

Sandoval noticed that the left-handed-hitting Duggar had a similar load to his swing from the left side, so he offered the young outfielder hitting tips as they worked in the batting cage. His advice helped yield instant results; Duggar batted leadoff in Sandoval’s first game with San Jose and went 2-for-3 with a double and two walks.

“I remember it specifically because he made it a point to try to give me some pointers,” Duggar says. “I ended up having a pretty good series while he was there. We just kind of bonded after that. He didn’t have to say a word to me. I’m just a Minor League guy. Nobody knows who I am. I think it’s just a testament to who he is as a teammate.”

Sandoval spent less than two weeks in the Minors before receiving his emotional callup to the Giants on Aug. 5. Upon returning to San Francisco, Sandoval continued to work to mend fences, apologizing personally to teammates as well as the organization and the fan base.

“I’m the clown in the clubhouse,” Sandoval admitted. “I try to keep my teammates free, loose so they’ll be good. But in that moment, I felt the pressure, and they were the ones who loosened me up a bit.”

He eventually succeeded in winning over his teammates with his humility and "team first" mentality.

“I think it kind of just happened organically over time,” Posey said. “Some of it came out through ribbing that we gave him just to kind of see the type of reaction that he would get. He’s been humble through it all.”

One of the most public examples of that teasing occurred on the final day of the 2017 season, when shortstop took over as the stadium DJ and selected walk-up songs for all his teammates. His choice for Sandoval? “Sorry,” by Justin Bieber, which features the lyrics “Yeah, I know that I let you down/Is it too late to say I’m sorry now?”

“I really think they understand sometimes we don’t handle things right, or we say things before we really put a lot of thought in it,” Bochy said. “And it happens to everybody. And so, time takes care of that, or conversations. It wasn’t long before things were back to normal with Pablo and his popularity with the team. Everybody in here inside the clubhouse, they love the guy. They love how he plays, they love the energy he brings, and they know he cares about them.”

Panda, reborn

Now 32, Sandoval is enjoying a personal renaissance with the Giants this season, batting .288 with a .917 OPS over 51 games. His seven home runs are the second most on the team behind 's eight, and his .596 slugging percentage is on pace to be the highest of his career.

Despite receiving sporadic playing time earlier this season, Sandoval has emerged as the Giants’ best hitter and their biggest threat off the bench, producing an MLB-high 10 pinch hits, seven of which have gone for extra bases.

“He’s the perfect guy for that,” Bochy says. “He’s got a great swing. He can sit for two weeks and go up there and give you a good at-bat. He stays ready.”

On May 18 and 19, Sandoval came off the bench to deliver home runs in two consecutive games against the D-backs, becoming the first Giant to accomplish the feat since Armando Rios in 1998.

Bochy said Sandoval’s ability to expand the zone contributes to his success as a pinch-hitter, as it makes it difficult for opposing pitchers to develop a scouting report against him.

“Sometimes they say your best chance is to throw it right down the middle,” left-hander said. “Because you could throw it and it’s going to hit him in the foot, and he might hit it in the Bay out there. He’s geared up to swing. And when guys miss, he doesn’t. He’s got a lot of power, and he makes you pay for it.”

With Belt and entrenched at first and third base, respectively, Sandoval remains a utility player, but he’s made it clear that he’s willing to accept any role to help the team. In addition to serving as a backup corner infielder and emergency catcher, Sandoval has logged a pair of relief appearances for the Giants, working two spotless innings to keep his 0.00 career ERA intact.

The Giants recently commemorated his nascent pitching career with a “Let Pablo Pitch” bobblehead giveaway. In typical San Francisco fashion, the team even set up a LinkedIn page to highlight his accomplishments on the mound as well as his work in the community.

“I enjoy the game as much as I can,” Sandoval said. “I try to enjoy every moment, every opportunity that they give me. I joke with the guys that they should get more days off so I can play, but sometimes you just have to accept things and do them well. One of the things that I accepted was that [reserve] role. I was very clear with Bochy. I told him, ‘Wherever you need me, I’ll be there.’ I’m not playing for pride. I’m playing because I love baseball, I love this uniform and I love this fan base.”

His unique bond with San Francisco has become apparent to Pomeranz, who played with Sandoval in Boston before signing a one-year contract with the Giants over the offseason.

“Obviously, you can tell this is his happy place,” Pomeranz said while observing Sandoval sign Panda hats for fans before a recent game. “They love him here.”

Sandoval is in the final year of his contract, leaving his future with the Giants a bit murky. Although he’s trying not to think too far ahead, he hopes to keep playing baseball beyond this year.

“I always said that I was going to retire when [Bochy] retired, but then he announced it this year, and I said, ‘No, no, it’s too soon,’” Sandoval said, smiling.

It came as no surprise that Bochy, in his final home opener, received the longest and loudest ovation from the sold-out crowd at Oracle Park in April. But the second-loudest applause came for Sandoval, who later crouched behind home plate to catch Bochy's ceremonial first pitch.

"It feels great," Sandoval said. "Here, the fans’ support is great. It's fantastic. No matter the situation, the ups and downs, the fans still have love for you. You just have to do everything you can to make the fans happy. It's part of my career, the ups and downs. To have the support from them means a lot."

Chris Haft contributed to this report.