Pablo Sandoval not only has baseball’s neatest nickname, Kung Fu Panda has a World Series MVP award to go along with it.
Sandoval took home the trophy following the San Francisco Giants’ sweep of Detroit, hitting .500 with three home runs, a double and four RBI in 16 Series at-bats.
”I was ready for the moment,” he said after a 4-3 victory in 10 innings Sunday night. ”It’s just an incredible moment you’re never going to forget.”
This Panda works with maple, not bamboo.
Sandoval got the Giants off to a powerful start by hitting three homers in the opener against the Tigers, becoming the fourth player to accomplish that feat in a World Series game.
He made his big league debut on Aug. 14, 2008, and earned his nickname just a month later. That Sept. 19 at Dodger Stadium, Sandoval scored from second on Bengie Molina’s first-inning single off Greg Maddux, leaping sideways to avoid catcher Danny Ardoin’s lunging tag on the throw from center fielder Matt Kemp.
Maddux and Dodgers manager Joe Torre argued Sandoval ran out of the baseline. Barry Zito, on the mound for the Giants that night, coined the nickname for Sandoval’s oversized personality and roly-poly shape — the animated film ”Kung Fu Panda” had been released in theaters that June.
”The Panda has special powers,” Zito said in the middle of champagne spray in the Giants’ crowded clubhouse. ”I watched that movie and thought, he’s a guy that if you see him, you may not think he’s so athletic, and then all of sudden, you’re like, wow! This guy is one of the better players in baseball.”
And the jovial Sandoval loved the moniker.
”It’s me. The character is me,” he said. ”Have fun, like a little kid, fight for everything, never lose faith. It’s important when you have teammates thinking that way, you are that guy.”
While Sandoval hit .330 in 2009 and finished second to Hanley Ramirez in the NL batting race, the Giants launched ”Operation Panda” that offseason, telling him to ditch the Big Macs, fries and milkshakes in favor of chicken breast on wheat bread, watermelon slices, bananas and oranges. He started lifting.
Sandoval’s weight is listed at 240 on the Giants’ website, 235 on the players’ site. At one point, he had been up to at least 272.
”I just want to keep that a secret,” he said three years ago, trying to avoid an exact number.
By the time the 2010 World Series rolled around, when the Giants won their first title in 56 years, Sandoval was benched for four of five games following a slump. His weight had gone up again, and his batting average had gone down to .268. He made 13 errors and grounded into a league-high 26 double plays.
”I know it was a tough time in 2010 when he got relegated to the bench there,” manager Bruce Bochy said. ”He really wanted to, I think, shine on stage. He’s a great talent and we got him hot at the right time.”
Sandoval hit .369 this postseason with five doubles, six homers and 13 RBI. Quite a turnaround from his .176 average with two RBI two years ago.
He has come a long way since then. He hired a personal chef. He ran up desert hills in Arizona during the offseason, causing him to throw up regularly. Sandoval’s average rebounded to .315, and he made his first All-Star team. Then at this summer’s showcase in Kansas City, he hit the first bases-loaded triple in All-Star history, a drive off Justin Verlander in a five-run first inning that helped secure home-field advantage for the NL in the World Series.
After Sandoval went deep three times in the opener, matching the Series record shared by Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols, the Giants sold 760 more of their furry panda hats, including 466 at AT&T Park during Game 2. Venezuela President Hugo Chavez tweeted, ”Pablo going down in history! Long live Venezuela!!”
”I still can’t believe that game. It’s the game of your dreams,” Sandoval said. ”You don’t want to wake up.”