It was crazy, bro." That much Pablo Sandoval can confirm. But he knows little else about the woman who dashed off the sidewalk on McAllister Street during the Giants' World Series parade, jumped on him lips first and tried to kiss him.
Sandoval doesn't know that the woman in question, a 20-year-old college student named Andrea Vasquez, was also on hand for the Giants' World Series parade in 2010, and that she "completely melted down" (her words) when Sandoval happened to look the other way as he rolled past her. He is also unaware that Vasquez cried when she missed a chance to meet him before a 2010 game, and that she had run around her house screaming when he began following her on Twitter that year.
Sandoval remembers the kiss though. It was three days after the Giants had completed their blink-and-you-missed-it, four-game blitz of the Tigers, and the World Series MVP and his girlfriend were riding in the back of a black Audi R8 convertible. Wearing aviators, a WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS hoodie and hat cocked to the right, Sandoval was offering the crowd fist-pumps, smiles and waves when Vasquez ambushed the car. "Can I have a hug?" she asked, then threw her arms around him and went in for the kiss. As she was pulled away by a guard, a stunned yet still smiling Sandoval yelled, "She f------ wanna kiss me!"
Crazy has become routine in the relationship between Sandoval and Giants fans. Since his arrival in San Francisco in 2008, the switch-hitting 26-year-old cantaloupe of a third baseman has inspired legions of otherwise self-respecting adults to go out in public dressed as panda bears. Last month there was the old lady at the autograph session in Burlingame, wearing bright-orange lipstick and eyeliner to match, who climbed over the table and covered him in kisses, shouting, "Pablo! I love you!" There was also the man who had Sandoval's face painted on his motorcycle. "Look," he told Sandoval, "I did this for you!" ("For me?" Sandoval replied. "So does that mean you're going to give it to me?" The man declined.)
The Giants were built to win championships, but they also seem designed as ambassadors for the city they represent. "I think if you went around on a game day and asked five or 10 fans who their favorite player is, you would get five or 10 different answers," says general manager Brian Sabean. There is catcher Buster Posey, the clean-cut, hypercompetent prodigy. There is righthander Tim Lincecum, with his effortless brilliance and his affinity for a certain smokable, psychoactive plant that is deeply embedded in the city's culture. There are bearded relievers Brian Wilson, the performance artist, and Sergio Romo, the compulsive photo bomber, as well as lefthander Barry Zito, the surfing and guitar-playing yogi. Says Sabean, "They all have their own unique ability to connect with the fans."
And then there's Sandoval, whose appeal transcends demographics. Who among us doesn't love a free-swinging fat man, especially when he has an omnipresent smile and gives us an excuse to wear funny hats? After Sandoval's epic performance in Game 1 against the Tigers—Sandoval became just the fourth player in history to hit three home runs in one World Series game—Pandamania reached an alltime high. "If you don't want to be famous," Sandoval says of life as a San Francisco Giant, "this isn't for you."
Before he earned money and fame and fans, Sandoval entertained himself with a stick and a dog. As a toddler growing up near the Caribbean coast in Venezuela, Sandoval began swinging a baseball bat, just like his older brother, Michael. One day the family's Doberman approached, and Sandoval, all of one year old, smacked it with the bat. The dog bit young Pablo's face, leaving a scar that remains visible just below his left eye. The next day the dog approached Sandoval again. He took another swing—and this time the dog bit his thigh. For the second day in a row the family rushed young Pablo to the emergency room. The following day the dog again ventured too close to the bat-wielding baby. Another swing, another bite (this time on his behind), another trip to the hospital. "I'm a fighter," says Sandoval. "You come at me, I'm coming back at you." (Michael offers a different perspective. "He was just a bad kid," he says. "That's all it was.")
The point is, even at that age, Pablo could swing it. The boys painted a strike zone in the family's garage, then pitched to each other and swung plastic bats. Sometimes they used plastic baseballs. Other times they wadded up pieces of paper, tied the mass together with nylon string and covered it with a sock. Though five years younger, Pablo made solid contact off his brother, who would himself go on to be a minor leaguer. This, he says, is how he learned to hit the fastball.
As Sandoval was growing up, Venezuela native Omar Vizquel was beginning his run of nine consecutive Gold Gloves as a shortstop with the Mariners and the Indians. Sandoval decided that since Vizquel was a shortstop, he needed to become a shortstop too. Never mind that Sandoval's spherical physique made him a better fit for catcher or first base. Never mind that he was a natural lefty. At eight years old, Sandoval taught himself to throw righthanded, and he used his instincts and quick feet to compensate for his heft.
His time at shortstop didn't last, but Sandoval developed into a switch-hitting catcher and signed with the Giants in 2003, at 16. He made his major league debut five years later as a utilityman, splitting time among first base, third base and behind the plate. Immediately, San Francisco fans loved him. He bounced around the dugout, bounded onto the field and swung at nearly every pitch that entered his orbit. He connected often, batting .345 with three home runs in 41 games as a rookie. Even when he didn't, fans swooned. "He's just a big kid playing the game," says manager Bruce Bochy. "It's infectious."
About a month after his call-up, Sandoval scored a run by jumping out of the way of a tag from Dodgers catcher Danny Ardoin. After the game, in reference to that play, Zito referred to the portly-but-agile Sandoval for the first time as "the Kung Fu Panda."
With that, a phenomenon was born.
Martin Man sits at his dining room table in San Francisco's Ingleside neighborhood, beaming as he shows off his collection of Sandoval-inspired merchandise. "Everybody loves the Panda hats," he says. "Some people even think the Panda is the official mascot of the Giants."
In many ways it is. AT&T Park is filled with Lincecum-inspired wigs and Wilsonian beards, but no image has become more associated with Giants supporters than that of dancing, screaming, Panda-hat-wearing superfans. The rise of the hat is a uniquely San Franciscan tale. Animal hats have long been popular in East Asia, particularly in Japan and Korea, and panda hats in particular are popular among tourists in China's Sichuan province, home to more than 30% of the world's pandas. A vendor in San Francisco's Chinatown carried the hats, and in 2009 a few Giants fans began wearing them to the park in honor of Sandoval. Television camera operators took notice. So did Man.
A Wells Fargo adviser by day, Man, a Hong Kong native, had run an online direct-mail shop as a side business, selling mostly electronics and novelty items. He carried panda hats too, but they rarely sold. But with Sandoval surging in late 2009—he hit 25 home runs and finished second in the NL batting race (.330) in his first full big league season—Man filled a duffel bag with the hats and parked his car near AT&T Park. He put one of the hats on top of a bat, held it up in the air and stood still as fans approached with cash in hand. The first night he sold 100 hats—$15 for one, $25 for two. Before long he'd relaunched his online store with a new signature product and name: PandaHat.com.
"This is a funky city," Man says. "In a lot of places, I don't think as many people would be willing to wear something like the panda hat." Even when Sandoval slumped through much of 2010, the Panda hat business kept booming. "Everyone always loves him," says Man. "It doesn't matter if he's good or bad."
In 2010 he was mostly bad. Out of shape, out of rhythm, and newly divorced, Sandoval hit .224 over the last month of the regular season, finishing with just 13 home runs and a .268 average, and he batted .176 in six postseason games. "Everything came too fast for him," says Michael. "He gets called up and everybody loves him, people are all wearing the hats, and then he falls off. People started talking s---. He wasn't ready for that."
Bochy benched Sandoval when the Giants faced the Rangers in the World Series, starting veteran Juan Uribe instead. San Francisco won in five games, and even though he had just three at bats, Sandoval never complained. But in the off-season, he made a promise to his family, his teammates and his friends. "Next time, it's not going to be like that," he told them. "Next time I'm going to be ready."
Sandoval's home run stroke returned in 2011, when he hit 23, but for much of this season he looked like a candidate for another postseason benching. In May he underwent surgery to fix a broken hamate bone in his left hand. In June he faced allegations of sexual assault from a woman who reportedly said she was too intoxicated to consent to an encounter they had. (No arrests were made, and police said there was insufficient evidence that Sandoval had committed a crime.) Soon after Sandoval returned from the disabled list, Bochy tried playing him at first base ("Like in Little League," the manager told reporters, "you put the fat guy over there and you [don't worry] about injuries), but Sandoval strained his hamstring. Criticism of his weight—he's listed at 240—continued. "He's just built in a way where it's easy for him to put on weight," says Greg (Sweets) Oliver, a trainer who has worked with Sandoval in the off-season. "If you have that body type, and you're playing baseball, where you're getting off late at night, and the clubhouse food isn't good, and you can't do cardio because you have to be fresh, it's tough."
"He does work hard at [losing weight]," says Sabean, "but sometimes, especially during the season, it's just a losing battle." Still, Sandoval's swing returned in mid-September, and he hit .333 over the last 16 games of the season. With the Giants down 3--1 to the Cardinals and facing elimination in the NLCS, Sandoval homered in Game 5, then doubled in Games 6 and 7, all San Francisco wins.
Sandoval awoke in his downtown San Francisco apartment on Oct. 24 feeling calm but anxious, ready for Game 1 of the World Series. He remembered watching from the dugout as other players carried the Giants to their title in 2010, and he remembered the promises he'd made to his trainers, his family, himself. "Everything I did for two years," he says, "was about getting to that day. Everything."
Before every game, Sandoval and his brother Michael break down the opposing pitcher's approach and tendencies. Sandoval joked, "My son is pitching today." Detroit's Game 1 starter would be the very intimidating Justin Verlander, the 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner. "Usually, we make a plan," Sandoval says of his conversations with Michael. "With Verlander, you can't have a plan.
But there was reason to be confident. Sandoval had faced Verlander just once in his career, in this year's All-Star Game, and had whacked a triple off the Tigers' ace. "We just decided, if the pitch was anywhere close to the plate, I was swinging," Sandoval says. (This was no newsflash; according to FanGraphs.com, Sandoval swung at 57% of the pitches he saw this season, the highest rate among National League players with more than 400 plate appearances.)
Yet on the first pitch he saw from Verlander, in the bottom of the first, Sandoval took a strike. He fouled off the next pitch. Then he turned on a fastball at the letters and sent it screaming 421 feet, into the bedlam of the centerfield bleachers at AT&T Park. Two innings later Sandoval got hold of another Verlander fastball sailing low and away and poked it over the fence in left. Cameras showed Verlander mouthing Wow as the ball fell into the crowd.
Verlander was gone by the time Sandoval came up again, in the fifth inning. This time he reached down for a breaking ball that reliever Al Alburquerque tried to put in the dirt, launching it 435 feet to center. With his three home runs Sandoval earned a place among the game's immortals. Only three other players have gone deep three times in a World Series game: Babe Ruth (twice), Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols.
After the game, Sandoval called the owner of Limon, a Peruvian restaurant in San Francisco's Latino-and-hipster-dominated Mission District. That afternoon he'd gone there for a pregame meal of chicharron de pollo. Now the restaurant was good luck. Even though they usually closed at 10 p.m., the owners kept the place open so Sandoval could return that night. But Sandoval picked at his empanadas in near silence, staring off into space. "It was like he didn't think it was real," says his agent, Gustavo Vasquez.
To confirm that he wasn't dreaming, Sandoval turned on the television when he got home. As night transitioned to morning, Sandoval sat on the couch, his living room lit by the glow of the screen, flipping between the MLB Network and ESPN to watch himself homer over and over again. When Michael tried to engage him in conversation, Sandoval just shook his head. "I can't believe it," he said. "I can't believe it."
Game 1 of the World Series was on a Wednesday. The Giants completed their sweep by Sunday, a Fall Classic that ended too quickly and without enough drama to fully grab the imagination of a public distracted by the upcoming presidential election and a looming hurricane on the east coast. (According to Nielsen it was the lowest-rated World Series ever.) Even for Sandoval, the memories are surreal. It's late on a November afternoon at his newly purchased and sparsely furnished South Florida home. The Kung Fu Panda is sitting by his pool, the sun setting behind him, the reality of his new stardom still not quite sinking in. Whenever he walks by the World Series MVP trophy, he pauses, sometimes shaking his head.
Perhaps his historic three-homer game was an act of athletic heroism. Perhaps it was a statistical anomaly. Either way, it happened, and "Everything," Sandoval says, "has changed." That's an overstatement, perhaps. Sandoval, who is heading into the second year of a three-year, $17.2 million contract, was already rich and beloved. Now he just has more autographs to sign and interviews to give, and he gets to hear his name mentioned in more rarefied circles. Still, his appreciation for the moment is clear.
Sandoval goes back inside to pick up his niece, and he swings her around as she gleefully squeals. Tomorrow he'll be on a plane to Venezuela; in a few days he'll be playing winter ball; and in a few months he'll report to spring training to begin another season. Someday, when the full story of his career is written, he'll know whether his performance in Game 1 was an isolated feat or one legendary night among many. But for now, he's enjoying it for what it was: the night that turned a lovable crowd favorite into something more.
Meanwhile, the devotion of Pandaphiles has only intensified. When Andrea Vasquez returned to the crowd after going for that kiss during the parade, she slipped, fell and sprained her knee. "It was," she says, "totally worth it."
Zito called him the Kung Fu Panda. And a phenomenon was born.
After the 2010 Series, Sandoval said, "Next time I'm going to be ready."
A Very Good Year
If facing Justin Verlander is supposed to be a terrifying experience, someone forgot to tell Pablo Sandoval. The Panda had three plate appearances against the Tigers' ace this season, one in the All-Star Game and two in Game 1 of the World Series (above). The results: nine pitches, two home runs, a triple and six RBIs.
1st inning, 2 outs, bases loaded
1 Fastball, 98 mph: Ball 1--0
2 Fastball, 98 mph: Foul 1--1
3 Curve, 81 mph: Triple to rightfield, three runs score
WORLD SERIES, GAME 1
1st inning, 2 outs, bases empty
1 Fastball, 94 mph: Called strike 0--1
2 Changeup, 87 mph: Foul 0--2
3 Fastball, 95 mph: Home run to centerfield
3rd inning, 2 outs, runner on first
1 Changeup, 86 mph: Ball 1--0
2 Changeup, 86 mph: Ball 2--0
3 Fastball, 95 mph: Home run to leftfield
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Photographs by JEFFREY A. SALTER
POOL PARTIER Before heading home to Venezuela to play winter ball, Sandoval spent a few weeks relaxing and soaking up his newfound celebrity at his South Florida house.
JASON O. WATSON/GETTY IMAGES
POWER CUBED In the World Series, Sandoval wasted little time erasing his memories of 2010, when he barely got off the bench during the Fall Classic: He went deep in his first three at bats of Game 1, the fifth three-homer game in Series history.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
[See caption above]
[See caption above]
PANDA-ING TO THE CROWD Sandoval's catchy nickname and irresistible demeanor made him a cult hero long before his World Series heroics, and his legions of behatted fans help make the AT&T Park crowd the most colorful in the big leagues.
JOHN HEFTI/ICON SMI
[See caption above]