A couple of years ago, my daughter and I were in the Giants Store at AT&T Park, and she asks me “What’s up with the panda hat.”
I explained how one of the Giants’ most popular players was nicknamed Kung Fu Panda. She responded: “Oh, then I need to get one of these.”
And thus began a whole line of novelty Giants memorabilia items dedicated to Giants players: Wilson beards, Lincecum wigs (now collector’s items), Baby Giraffes, White Sharks, Melkmen, and on and on.
Pablo Sandoval, aka Kung Fu Panda, got his nickname back when he was first called up by the Giants in 2008. After watching the plump Sandoval acrobatically jump to avoid the tag of Dodgers catcher Danny Ardoin, pitcher Barry Zito tagged him “Kung Fu Panda.”
Prior to last October’s pitching performance in Game 5 of the NLCS in St. Louis, it was Zito’s greatest contribution to the franchise in his six seasons in San Francisco.
In a story on Yahoo Sports that you can read here, writer Jeff Passan suggests that the nickname hasn’t been all positive.
Sandoval’s M.O. for his entire career is that he’s an athletic and nimble guy in spite of his chubby physique. Oh, and he hits.
And as long as he hits, the motivation to keep his weight under control becomes less and less.
His weight became an issue late in the 2010 season when the Giants benched the struggling Sandoval in part because they felt his weight was making him a defensive liability at third. He watched most of the Giants’ postseason run to the 2010 World Series title from the dugout.
Under the threat of being sent to Triple-A Fresno, Sandoval spent that offseason getting himself in shape, and it seemed to work. A slimmer Panda reported to Scottsdale the following spring.
But a broken hamate bone landed Sandoval on the DL for six weeks, and when he returned to the lineup, there was more of him. But he hit.
He returned to offseason conditioning after the 2011, although not as rigorous as the previous winter and with less results. But when he came back in 2012, he hit.
Then there were two more DL stints in 2012 (one for breaking the OTHER hamate bone and one for a strained hamstring after he did tried to the splits like Nadia Comaneci as he tried to field a throw as a first baseman). But when he returned from those DL trips, he hit.
He could have been the All-Star game MVP. He was the World Series MVP, joining Ruth, Jackson and Pujols in baseball lore with his three-homer game in Game 1 of the Series (including two off Jason Verlander). Sandoval only hit 12 homers last season (more a by-product of his recovery from the hamate surgery than his weight), but added six more homers in the postseason.
This past winter, there was no Camp Panda in Arizona. He went home to Venezuela. When I saw highlights of him playing in the Venezuelan World Series, I thought “Oh my God! The Panda is HUGE!!” And that’s saying something.
But, once again, he was hitting, earning Venezuelan World Series MVP honors.
When Sandoval showed up to spring training last month, Giants manager Bruce Bochy immediately wanted to put the Panda on the Jared Diet of low-fat Subway sandwiches and lots of walking (Of course, as we all know, the Panda don’t like to walk).
Bochy threatened to keep Sandoval out of the lineup this spring until he shed a few pounds, which, apparently, he did (although there is still no video evidence of this).
So the Panda played. And he hit, batting .435 this spring. He even played for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic, hitting .308 (4 for 13) with a home run.
But even Sandoval realizes that his weight will become a greater burden as time goes on.
“I’ve got this year and next year to change all the things,” Sandoval told Passan. “It’s going to take me a while, but I can do it. I know I can do it.
“You need to learn. You need to grow up. You need to step up and know the difference between what you can do and what you can’t.”
Why the next two years? Sandoval says because by then he’ll be pushing 30. And as most of us know, after 30 the metabolism tends slow down. For Sandoval, that means he could be pushing 300 pounds, which would make him better suited to land a job in the starting lineup of San Francisco 49ers than that of the San Francisco Giants.
But is there something else motivating Sandoval? This year and next year are the final two years that Sandoval is under contract with the Giants. After the 2014 season, Sandoval will be a free agent.
And there likely won’t be a big market for a player who may soon join the 30/300 club. Teams won’t be interested in offering a long-term contract to a player who they fear will have his movie-inspired nickname changed from “Kung Fu Panda” to “Titanic.”