AT&T PARK — Some four hours before the San Francisco Giants opened up their homestand on an unusually hot Thursday afternoon, Pablo Sandoval was out on the field, sweat dripping from his forehead, taking extra batting practice under the watchful eye of hitting coach Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens.
Sandoval, whose second life as a Giant officially started two weeks ago, can’t stop smiling as he leans against the railing of the staircase leading into the home dugout at Third and King.
“Everything, man. Everything,” Sandoval said, beaming, when asked to explain the best part of returning to San Francisco.
“The fans. My teammates. The city,” Sandoval continued. “It’s beautiful now to be back, to spend time in the beautiful weather.”
The one-time World Series MVP, who flopped so badly with the Boston Red Sox that the team cut him loose even though he was still owed $49.5 million, is intent on capitalizing on a second chance with his first team.
After burning all but a couple of bridges during his exit in 2014, Sandoval knew his apology — to fans, teammates, club officials and Bruce Bochy, his longtime manager and surrogate father figure — would have to include more than just words.
And that’s how the idea was born.
Per the rules of MLB, the Red Sox are responsible for all but the prorated major league minimum of Sandoval’s salary.
Sandoval took that money, roughly $125,000 and donated all of it to the Giants Community Fund, which supports Junior Giants leagues and community initiatives in areas of education, health and violence prevention.
“Sometimes … you have to apologize and do everything the right way and I was trying to help some kids,” Sandoval explained. “That [was] my apology to the fans, to my teammates to help kids to enjoy the things that we do on the field.”
The donation was made in consultation with Sandoval’s family and his agents, but Panda was the one who hatched the idea.
“They needed it more than I do,” Sandoval said.
The third baseman knew he wanted to return to San Francisco as soon as the Red Sox released him. Asked what he’d have done if the door to the Giants hadn’t been open, Sandoval had to pause.
“I would have waited for another team to pick me up,” Sandoval said. “Keep working hard and preparing myself for next year. That’s what I was thinking. Thanks to God the Giants gave me an opportunity to be here.”
With a concussion sending Brandon Belt to the disabled list and shifting Ryder Jones to first base, Sandoval has seized control of the hot corner.
During the club’s recent road trip, Sandoval didn’t miss an inning, even playing both ends of the Giants’ doubleheader against the Washington Nationals.
After totaling 161 games in two-and-a-half seasons with the Red Sox, Sandoval doesn’t want anymore days off.
“It’s impressive,” Bochy said. “Now, granted, he’s missed some time. And he tells me that, ‘I’ve missed enough time. I’m good to go.’ That’s his attitude.”
Bochy likes what he’s seen out of the 31-year-old on defense and thinks his bat speed is gradually coming back, noting that Sandoval has the discipline of a confident hitter, who isn’t cheating by swinging early to chase pitches.
Sandoval, who was originally signed out of Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, in 2003 when he was 16, lights up when asked about Bochy.
“I’m always going to say, he’s a future Hall of Famer,” Sandoval said. “He’s a great manager, a great, great person and he gives you good advice to be successful.”
Sandoval badly missed Bochy’s steadying presence during his Boston tenure.
“Through the ups and downs, he wants you to be you,” Sandoval said.
“When you have ups and downs during your career, you need to have people like that to tell you the things you don’t want to hear.”
Back in the familiar clubhouse at AT&T Park, Sandoval occupies a locker on veteran’s row.
On one side, his friend Hunter Pence is one stall away. On the other is Johnny Cueto. Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner are right across the way.
“It’s nice to be next to Hunter and Cueto,” Sandoval said. “It’s nice and Buster’s around, all the guys. But you know, being in the clubhouse is great. There’s great camaraderie. There’s a great feeling being back here and having fun with the guys.”
With the Giants spiraling through a summer of chaos, opportunity abounds. As the team begins to sketch out plans for 2018, Bochy is keeping an open mind all around the diamond — including at third base.
“It’s all going to be competitive is the way I look at it right now next year,” Bochy said. “I don’t think we have [more] than a handful of jobs that you say, ‘Okay, this is your job in spring training.’”
With the chance to play himself into a more prominent role, Sandoval isn’t worried about looking too far out on the horizon.
Instead, he’s committed to showing the young Giants the right way to play the game, taking extra batting practice and making most of his opening.
“I focus on day-to-day,” Sandoval said. “I do my job up there and try to do everything I can to win games, to help the team defensively and offensively — with whatever I can to win games.”