Giants’ Sandoval on slimdown, healthy plan

Pablo Sandoval walks through the Giants‘ lunch room in search of wheat bread. He has just finished an intense cardio workout of biking, a power walk on the treadmill at a steep incline and a session on the elliptical machine.

Whew, he’s ready to eat. Strength coach Ben Potenziano is at Sandoval’s side as he surveys the buffet – chicken breast on wheat bread is a good choice, mayonnaise is not. Sandoval prepares himself a sandwich and a fruit plate piled high with watermelon slices, a banana and orange.

The “Operation Panda” shape-up program is full steam ahead for San Francisco’s free-swinging slugger, who used to fuel up on pizza and his McDonald’s favorites of Big Macs, fries and milkshakes. Back home in his native Venezuela, it’s always been big helpings of rice and beans.

He is changing his ways. And his big brother, Michael, is supporting him through it all.

“It’s tough. I’m thinking about my job. That’s the future for my family,” said Sandoval, who has replaced soda with water and green tea. “I’m a Latin American dude. I eat rice and beans, and I eat a lot.”

Yet Sandoval’s expanding waistline became an issue in 2009, both on the basepaths and in his ability to move and cover ground in the infield.

Potenziano and athletic trainer Dave Groeschner decided to take charge to help Sandoval, who has endeared himself to the fans and his teammates with an ever-present grin and a genuine passion for playing baseball. Pitcher Barry Zito gave him the nickname “Kung Fu Panda” for his larger-than-life personality, not to mention his size.

It’s not every day a major league club takes such a hands-on approach to a player’s offseason regimen, though there are examples when someone is coming back from injury. This seems more along the lines of an NFL team helping an out-of-shape player at the start of training camp.

The 23-year-old Sandoval is someone the Giants consider part of their long-term future. In his first full major league campaign, he batted .330 with 25 home runs and 90 RBIs and had a .556 slugging percentage. He also struck out 83 times to 52 walks and earned a reputation for swinging at anything that came his way – high, low, inside, outside, it didn’t matter.

Yet Sandoval wasn’t taking care of his body, ordering room service on the road, eating out late, avoiding the healthy foods and going for the fattening ones.

In early November, he lifted a weight for the first time in his life.

He was sore for a week after his first workout with Potenziano, and still had some aches three weeks after starting the program.

Why had he never strength trained?

“I didn’t like it,” Sandoval said. “Now I know how important it is.”

He can envision the player he might become once he’s in better shape, moving faster because he’s lighter and playing with more energy that comes from a healthier diet and regular exercise.

“I’ve been thinking about that,” he said. “I know I’m working hard. We’ll see how my next season goes. That’s going to be important for me.”

So important that Sandoval’s brother is with him every step of the way this winter. They started their training in Arizona – including heart-pumping hikes up Camelback Mountain and meetings with a nutritionist – then made a stop in San Francisco to take part in a fitness camp for newly drafted players, then it was home to Venezuela.

Sandoval is playing winter ball this month, with a local coach there monitoring his progress for the Giants. Then he will return to Arizona in January to gear up for the start of spring training in mid-February.

Through Thursday, Sandoval was batting .368 with a home run, two doubles and five RBIs in five games for Navegantes del Magallanes.

Latin music blares through the clubhouse from Sandoval’s iPod as he and his brother push through another workout, Potenziano never far away. The goal is that they work hard enough to get into a fat-burning zone.

“We’re just trying to get him to burn as many calories as we can and still take in around 2,200 calories a day with a lot of water, a lot of water,” Potenziano said.

“Pablo is unique because of his unique situation. As an organization, we decided we were going to do something to help him. It was all positive. It wasn’t negative. He wants to be MVP. It’s a behavior modification for him and he’s been receptive.”

Now, he has more energy – and he no longer misses the fried food, sweets and soda. It’s becoming routine.

“It’s one of those things you say, ‘I want to keep doing it, keep getting ready for next season,”‘ he said. “I want to keep my mind on what I want to do. That’s what I think about every day now.”

Manager Bruce Bochy was in town recently and came by after one of Sandoval’s workouts. Sandoval, sporting a black “Operation Panda” T-shirt with a panda caricature on the front sporting the name Pablo, hugged the skipper.

“He’s a great kid,” Bochy said. “He knows he has some work to do. He’s taken responsibility to work at it and get to where he needs to be.”

Others are taking notice of his newfound work ethic, too.

Alex Burg, a catcher drafted in the 24th round this year, stopped Sandoval for an autograph. First-round draft pick Zach Wheeler followed suit.

“It’s unbelievable,” Burg said. “It’s really nice to see a professional and how he goes about his business. To see him out here, we’re all working, and he’s always got a smile on his face and he’s always keeping everything light. It kind of gives us something to work toward.”

Michael – like Sandoval a third baseman – wanted to help in this challenging process. He’s made himself better, too, losing about 15 pounds. They weigh their food portions together and keep each other on track.

“I was thinking one day, ‘He needs a little support,”‘ Michael said. “I said, ‘I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.’ We’re brothers. We’re glad we’re doing it and we’re still learning. We feel fantastic and want to keep doing it.”

Sandoval is still self-conscious about his weight.

“I just want to keep that a secret,” he said of the number.

He did acknowledge he was heavier than he’d ever been by “a lot.” It scared him.

He then decided to share a little more: He lost 13 pounds in the first three weeks of the plan and was down to 259. He knows he very well could have hit 300 if he kept eating the way he had been.

He believes he’s establishing lifelong habits now.

“This is one of those things you wake up, you want to work out, you want to do your thing and get ready for next season,” Sandoval said. “You want to learn things for your life, for your career.

“I do this for the fans, for the team but especially for my career. I don’t want to have only a five-year career. I want to have a longer career. That’s what I’m thinking about right now. Now I feel great. I’m going to do it, do it, do it.”