The Giants’ baserunner had no business scoring from second on the grounder but he tried anyway. A good throw beat him home by 20 feet, but the rookie faked out the catcher and scored on a belly-flop. Pitcher Barry Zito dubbed his acrobatic teammate “Kung Fu Panda” after a cartoon character. It was the summer of 2008, and Pablo Sandoval had arrived in San Francisco.
So began an astonishing run for the Venezuelan infielder that’s unparalleled in team history. Sandoval’s Giants tenure included October glory and a playoff benching, World Series titles and weight struggles, and an unpleasant parting followed by a humble reunion.
Through it all, Sandoval became one the most successful Giants ever. His postseason numbers boast twice as many home runs as Will Clark, a .344 batting average that beats Barry Bonds by 50 points, and three World Series rings, which is three more than Willie Mays won in San Francisco. Has any foreign-born California athlete achieved more?
Beyond that, he played with joy and heart that made him fun to watch and easy to like. Though he wasn’t very fast, he was quick to hustle, smile and laugh, endearing him to fans and teammates alike.
Sandoval spoke no English when he arrived in the United States at 17. But by the time he broke in with the big club, he gave frequent interviews in English, speaking imperfectly but fearlessly.
In his first full season of 2009, the Panda hit a career-best 25 home runs and 90 RBIs. Then came a sophomore slump as his weight climbed to 278 pounds in 2010. During the Giants’ astonishing World Series run, Sandoval spent much of October riding the pine.
Amid loud public criticism, he could have easily become angry and sullen. Instead, he volunteered for “Operation Panda,” a rigorous offseason program in Arizona to improve his conditioning. All that desert exercise paid off as he roared back in the next two years, making the All Star Team twice on the way to another world title in 2012.
During that same season, I took two of my high school journalism students to the ballpark and Sandoval kindly gave us an impromptu interview. That night he made a tough play to complete pitcher Matt Cain’s perfect game against the Astros.
More dizzying highs and lows followed. During the 2014 postseason, the jovial Sandoval scored the winning run in Game 7 of the World Series. Then he signed with the Boston Red Sox and bad-mouthed his former team as he left town, upsetting the team and fans.
Far more upset were the Red Sox when Sandoval showed up out of shape, played miserably and got hurt. Boston ate his enormous contract just to get rid of him in 2017.
Sandoval’s words seemed to rule out a San Francisco return, but Panda apologized sincerely. How many public figures do that these days? The Giants took him back and he worked his way up from the minor leagues again. He became a valuable role player for three years, knocking in 101 more runs and even pitching two perfect and hilarious innings. Panda hats filled the ballpark again.
Sandoval also created a foundation that helps children’s groups and other charities.
During 2020, Sandoval bounced back from Tommy John surgery. He played despite the anguish of the coronavirus infecting his wife and kids in August; they have since recovered.
Panda, 34, became the newest former Giant when the team released the slumping infielder this month. “My heart will forever be in San Francisco,” he said in thanks to the team and fans after 10 years in orange and black.
Nine Giants played for all three championship teams of the dynasty years. Perhaps none of the others contributed as much while overcoming such adversity, even if some of it was self-inflicted. Maybe his flaws even led fans to appreciate his success and love him more.
I’ve saved the best for last. In Game 1 of the 2012 World Series, Panda faced Detroit pitcher Justin Verlander in the first inning and crushed a home run. In the third inning, the Giant rocked the Tigers’ ace again. In the fifth inning, he smacked another long ball, joining just three others in World Series history to hit three homers in a game.
Among the screaming, ecstatic fans in the park that night were me and my dad, who was attending his first and last World Series game. The Giants swept the heavily-favored Tigers as Sandoval batted .500 and won the MVP award.
Thanks for all the memories and especially that one, Pablo. Hasta luego y buena suerte.
Matt Johanson authored the book “Game of My Life: San Francisco Giants.”