'People fell in love' with Kung Fu Panda

September 12th, 2020

Though might have needed his uniform tailored occasionally, he and the Giants remained a perfect fit for each other.

Giants fans appreciate efficiency as much as fans do anywhere. Historically, though, the Giants faithful tend to cling a little more tightly to heroes whose game is flavored with an extra something. Call it flair. Call it attitude. Whatever it is, it’s distinctive.

Willie Mays made spectators nudge each other with his basket catch and anything he did to run from underneath his cap. Nobody swung a bat like Willie McCovey, kicked his front leg like Juan Marichal or mouthed off like John Montefusco. Will Clark’s swing came from the heavens; his intensity rose from hell. Tim Lincecum was a little bundle of energy who had to be seen to be believed, from his delivery to his pitches.

Released by the Giants on Thursday, the 34-year-old Sandoval brought a love for the game that was virtually unrivaled in its purity. Merely being on the field wasn’t enough for him.

“Do you remember that excitement when Timmy was on the mound? There was that excitement when Pablo was in the [batter’s] box,” former outfielder Randy Winn said.

Sandoval wanted to play, even during breaks in the action. Positioned on defense, he delighted in blowing bubbles with his chewing gum between pitches. He seemed to be always doing something, which explained why former left-hander Barry Zito nicknamed Sandoval “Kung Fu Panda,” after the cuddly looking animated action hero. Both pandas possessed indefatigable zeal.

“Panda was a tremendous teammate,” former right-hander Matt Cain said Friday in a text message. “You always knew he was going to show up for every pitch of the game. He always wanted to find a way to win, whether it was at the plate or in the field or by adding lots of energy in the dugout. I truly loved playing beside Panda.”

Said former manager Bruce Bochy: “That was a perfect nickname. People fell in love with him.”

At the plate, Sandoval wasn’t bound by the conventional wisdom of swinging at pitches in the strike zone. So when he hit three homers in the 2012 World Series opener against Detroit, Giants fans were thrilled but not surprised. They already had seen him punish every pitch imaginable.

“You didn’t know what you might see,” Winn said. “He might take one of those eye-high fastballs and rifle it down either of those foul lines. Or he might see a pitch that was going to hit him in the foot and rifle it down the foul line.”

Labeling Sandoval as a clown, as some did, would be a mistake. He was a superior athlete, despite his listed weight of approximately 268 pounds. He began his professional career as a catcher, which requires considerable dexterity. Being benched during the 2010 postseason because he was too poorly conditioned to patrol third base taught Sandoval a lesson. By '14, he was fit enough to play all nine innings in October, as he famously proved when he caught Salvador Perez’s foul popup for the World Series-ending out at Kansas City and sank to his knees in mingled joy and relief.

His pair of relief appearances have become the stuff of Giants legend. A switch-hitter, Sandoval could have switch-pitched. He was a natural left-handed thrower before his brother made him become a right-hander to avail himself of more positional options. Before batting practice, he often played catch left-handed. Were it not for injuries that prematurely ended his previous two seasons, Sandoval likely would have played all nine positions in a game.

The timing of Sandoval’s departure was sadly fitting, given right fielder 's release on Aug. 24. They were not just buddies but also kindred spirits, mavericks who strayed from baseball fundamentals and succeeded with their own styles.

Sandoval was the last active player among the eight who played on all three of San Francisco’s World Series winners of 2010, '12 and '14 (catcher is sitting out this year with the club’s blessing due to pandemic-related concerns).

“His legacy is going to be tied to the postseason and the world championships,” Winn said.

“Without him,” Cain said, “We wouldn’t have had any of the success we had.”

Thus widens the chasm between San Francisco’s hopeful present and glorious past. It’s just as well. The Giants are striving to establish fresh organizational philosophies while employing a roster that includes only two players from their final Series-winning team, first baseman and shortstop . Dwelling on the past would be irrational. But cherishing it is perfectly worthwhile. The mental snapshots of Sandoval, the Giants’ own Kung Fu Panda, will never fade.

“I’ve said this -- if there wasn’t professional baseball or there wasn’t a paycheck involved, Pablo would still be playing baseball,” Bochy said.