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Panda: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Pablo Sandoval, Ben CheringtonI’m over it, and you should be too. I admit, it wasn’t easy at first to read about the Panda being courted by the bean counters in Beantown. An outsider might look curiously at how young and old, male and female Giants Nation came to embrace a rotund man in his twenties, turning him into a warm, cuddly and lovable creature they called the Panda. But I think I can explain that.

Pablo Sandoval was one of us, a lunch pail worker, even if sometimes he needed two lunch pails to fill the frame. In a sport with wheelers and dealers, he was a portrait of innocence. He reminded us of why we fell in love with baseball in our youths. He hopped, skipped and jumped into the batter’s box with that one-of-a-kind ritual that would look idiotic if tried by 99 percent of the players, yet was accepted because he was the Panda. He blew bubbles with his bubble gum while fielding the ball. His policy as a batter was no pitch would be left behind as he swung at everything but intentional walks, and rapped a number of hits that were not only well off the plate but barely in the same zip code. While some of the game’s combatants played with a sneer, he operated with a smile. He was a big leaguer with a passion for the game of a little leaguer. He wasn’t a superstar, but did you ever ignore him when he was at bat?

Of course, all that would be meaningless and silly except for one thing: the Panda produced.

The Giants and Dodgers were locked in a classic pennant race in August 2012, and entered a three-game series at Dodger Stadium with first-place Los Angeles leading San Francisco by a half game. The Dodgers were coming off a three-game sweep of the Giants in July, and looked to get a jump on the Giants with ace Clayton Kershaw on the mound. Kershaw was a Giant killer, having beaten them five times in 2011. The Giants needed someone to step up.

Madison Bumgarner did his part, battling pitch for pitch with Kershaw. But could anyone provide the offense? Sandoval took on the challenge, driving in both Giants runs with a sacrifice fly and a single off Kershaw for a crucial 2-1 victory. Fans will point to Sandoval’s record-tying, three-homer explosion in game one of the 2012 World Series as his most memorable moment as a Giant. But without those season-changing clutch at-bats against Kershaw, which propelled the Giants to a series sweep of the Dodgers, there might never have been a World Series that year to showcase Sandoval’s magic.

Sandoval cemented his legend as a Giant with that World Series big fly binge. I’ve seen a lot of baseball. I’ve never seen or felt anything like what happened that day.

Based on the press reports, there was doubt the Giants would even show up for the series opener as they faced the dominant Detroit Tigers and their all-world pitcher Justin Verlander, who had won the MVP and Cy Young the previous season. Poor physical conditioning and a big offensive drop off had made Sandoval a spectator in the Giants post-season championship run of 2010. But Sandoval had gotten himself in shape, and was lighting up the 2012 post season. His first-inning homer triggered a burst of cheers and applause. His second off Verlander in the third set off a wild celebration in the stands. But it was his third blast, off reliever Al Albuquerque in the fifth, that provided the incredible chilling moment. The shock was such that there was a split second of silence where raucous cheers would usually take over, as the crowd came to grips with what they just saw. Around my section, people stared silently at each other, before erupting into screams, hugs, high fives and maybe even some tears. It was the most powerful moment in the 15 years at the Giants downtown ballpark.

Sandoval played a key role in the Giants 2014 post season and eventual championship. He was a free agent, but the Giants boasted that they never lost a free agent they really wanted.

But they apparently didn’t know that the Panda wanted to run free.

The press conference in Boston to officially introduce Sandoval as a new member of the Red Sox was weird. It was one thing for Giants fans to know their Panda was being courted. Now they were watching the wedding, with Sandoval wearing a Red Sox cap and shirt. The Red Sox brass seemed so proud they pulled this off, but I kept wondering that if they were so smart, why did they have Sandoval sitting in front of a wall filled with logos for Dunkin Donuts? Couldn’t they have found a sponsor who sold low-calorie salads?

When the officials quit droning on and let reporters ask Sandoval questions, he was superb. He was classy, and said all the right things. I really believe that Sandoval simply had a seven-year itch after his seven-year career with the Giants. Maybe there were some issues with the Giants that will eventually surface, but he seemed truly excited to become part of the Three Amigos, as a Boston website called them, to be joining Red Sox godfather David Ortiz and former Dodger Hanley Ramirez. Sandoval saw the challenge of taking on a new job, and is that wrong? If you’re truly looking for something to be irritated about, it is how the American League has an advantage over the National League in signing players such as Sandoval because they can entice the player as a potential designated hitter toward the end of the contract.

Yes Virginia, baseball is a business, and that is not breaking news. There’s nothing new about that. The Giants gave the boot to Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal. But baseball also is a fascinating game, and Sandoval as a member of the Red Sox will be one of the most interesting stories of 2015. So will the moves the champion Giants will consider now, as we assume the nearly $100 million being reserved for Sandoval is now available to buy a top-flight pitcher or leftfielder.

If your little Virginia also wants to know what to do with her treasured Panda hat, refer her to this comment about the hats from a woman who reviewed one on Amazon.com, and tell her to wear it proudly. “Since it doesn’t have a team logo, if you’re more of a Panda fan than a Giants fan, you can take it with you if he happens to go somewhere else.”

So let the Panda move on, cherish the thrills he provided, and welcome him back when the Giants hold some big World Series reunion in future years. Or better yet, pull for a Giants-Red Sox World Series in 2015: MadBum vs the Panda: Could baseball get any better than that?


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