SAN FRANCISCO -- Pablo Sandoval showed up at the Giants' first postseason workout with a new tattoo on one biceps and a shock of freshly dyed orange hair, like a rooster's comb, atop his head. He beamed as he showed off the tattoo, pulling back a sleeve to reveal the ink on a canvas of splotchy, reddened skin.
He'll never learn. That was the easy conclusion after a look at Sandoval's grin and biceps, still smarting from the artist's needle.
The potential for a headline reading "Sandoval sidelined by tattoo-parlor infection'' eluded him. The idea that he should suppress the rambunctiousness fueling this mini-makeover before it overwhelmed his prodigious talent and led to a playoff benching, as it had two years earlier, got by him as well.
Anyone who knew Sandoval could foresee the risks. He'd swing hard at pitches that arrived at collar-level or at his ankles, pitches that would prompt barely a twitch from a rational hitter. Out of pure giddiness, he'd lose his concentration at least once at third base.
This is who he is, San Francisco's Kung Fu Panda, a cartoon character come to life, a yo-yo dieter whose plush body can somehow turn on a dime and, as of Wednesday night, a World Series peer to Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols.
For those who value discipline and order, it must be reassuring to hear that Sandoval's three home runs in Game 1 of the World Series against the Detroit Tigers reflected a new maturity. His manager and coaches all said as much, and reliever Jeremy Affeldt supported them by describing Sandoval after his second home run, promising to do breathing exercises to stay calm.
But look at the swings that drove those balls out of the park. They reveal an athlete who can disregard huge swaths of conventional wisdom, a hitter of impeccable instinct and zero conscience.
The first homer came on an 0-2 fastball, high, tight, untouchable. Sandoval connected as if the ball had been placed on a tee, sending it over the center-field wall. The next one came on a 2-0 pitch, on the outside of the plate. As Sandoval launched it into the left-field seats, Justin Verlander watched the spectacular opposite-field propulsion and said simply: "Wow.'' The final one came on a slider destined for the dirt. Sandoval met it like John Daly driving the green.
"Wherever the ball is, I'm just going to swing,'' the man of the night said without shame, without cause for it.
He knows what people think when the big gambles don't pay off. They want to see patience, caution. Sandoval understands, even if he doesn't oblige very often. He can find humor in the exasperation. Not too long ago, he walked twice in a game and asked for the lineup card as a souvenir.
On Wednesday, Sandoval created much more valuable memorabilia. His bat, the one that stroked the first two homers and then cracked on a foul before No. 3, was off to Cooperstown.
Sandoval's name doesn't fit neatly into the company of Ruth, Jackson and Pujols. They were all 31 when they launched three home runs in a World Series game (Ruth did it again at 33), and each had passed 300 career homers. Sandoval is 26 and has 76 career homers.
When the Giants pulled him from the 8-3 win in the ninth, he bounced onto the back of hitting coach Hensley Meulens, known as "Bam Bam" and sturdy enough to withstand the seismic shock, and said: "That was history. That was a record.''
According to starting pitcher Barry Zito, several players in the Giants dugout weren't sure whether anyone had ever belted three homers in a World Series game. Sandoval picked up on the fact late. He can, as it turns out, learn plenty. He just might do it in unexpected ways.
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Two years ago, at the start of another World Series for the Giants, Sandoval had been virtually shelved. Throughout the season, his gut grew and his game receded.
The team resolved to whittle him down over the winter and, if possible, to make his Panda identity less obtrusive. Zito had created the nickname for him in 2008, when he appeared in his first 41 major-league games. Zito thought the chubby catcher/first baseman/third baseman had the nearly mystical powers of the lead character in the movie "Kung Fu Panda 2.'' Sandoval could do the unexpected, acrobatics in the field, bouncing from the turf to his feet with the sprightliness of a man half his size.
The fans in San Francisco were smitten. Sandoval projected joy on every play. His manager, Bruce Bochy, constantly noted how much and how visibly Sandoval loved the game. The youngster also promised to reverse an unfortunate franchise trend: The Giants had a history of failing to develop every-day players through their farm system. Now, in the year after Barry Bonds retired, they had drafted Buster Posey from Florida State and installed this effervescent kid Sandoval from Venezuela in the lineup.
The Panda nickname begat Panda caps, an ideal accessory at a ballpark most likely to turn arctic in August. They brought in $20 a pop and connected fans, especially those with kids, more deeply to the team as it reshaped its identity.
The 2009 Panda didn't raise many doubts about his icon status. He hit .330 with 25 home runs, nearly made the All-Star team and finished seventh in the MVP vote. Still, he was too young and unformed to be the face of the club, and the Giants recognized the problem a year later, when Sandoval dropped 62 points from his batting average and seemed bewildered both in the field and at the plate. After Game 5 of the 2010 NLCS with the Phillies, when he failed to cover third properly on a play, the job shifted to Juan Uribe.
The Giants focused on excess weight as the culprit. It made him slower, less able to turn on pitches and prone to injuries. The team insisted on a personal trainer and dissuaded him from going home for long -- in Venezuela, he is always welcome in far too many homes for far too many dinners.
Sandoval was reared in a family that stressed education. Both parents went to college, and so did his two eldest brothers, who became a lawyer and police officer. The two younger brothers, Michael and Pablo, chose baseball, much to their mother’s regret. But Pablo ascended to national idol status when he beat Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers’ 2012 Triple Crown winner, in a 2008 home-run derby in Venezuela.
Countryman Gregor Blanco, now a Giants teammate, remembers watching Sandoval’s arrival in Venezuela on TV after the 2010 World Series. “He couldn’t get off the plane," Blanco said, “there were so many people who wanted to be around him."
Sandoval spent most of that off-season in Arizona focused on workouts and careful nutrition, dropping almost 40 pounds. Some of it crept back on over time. The rest galloped. His capacity for rapid weight gain at such a young age amazed his bosses.
He broke a bone in each hand over the last two years, and time on the disabled list tended to bring on the avoirdupois. Bochy gave up playing diplomat on the issue this summer. As Sandoval went through a minor-league rehab assignment, the manager issued warnings that if his heft damaged his fielding, it could keep him off the big-league roster.
“We have enough first basemen,” Bochy told The San Francisco Chronicle. “We need to get him in shape to get him to third. I hope we’re not forced to make a change. That’s in Pablo’s hands."
At another point, when an ESPN reporter asked about Sandoval’s statements on committing to fitness, Bochy replied: “Well, you know, there comes a time when you don’t want to hear it."
During the minor-league stint, a woman accused Sandoval of sexual assault. His attorney said the pair had engaged in consensual activity. An investigation by the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office did not yield charges, but the incident gravely compounded doubts about Sandoval’s judgment.
He returned to the big-league club, and did play some first base, where the long leg splits led to a hamstring injury and more time off. But in the end, his agility survived, if perhaps not entirely intact. On the night the Giants clinched their division, Sandoval made a catch on a foul pop that sent him flipping over a railing, one arm holding on to prevent a head-first crash, the other at work securing the ball. All the while, he was blowing a big pink bubble with his gum -- the mystical, goofy Panda effect.
Bochy’s comment on the third baseman slamming his body around? “It helps to have a little extra cushion."
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So that’s how Sandoval went into the postseason, with his weight as an established punch line for his dry-witted manager. Bochy has never been nearly as critical of Sandoval’s indiscriminate swings at the plate. He has long understood that Sandoval has that rare gift of being able to hit bad pitches and that a young player should not be forced to adapt quickly.
Meulens stresses managing Sandoval’s emotions more than tempering his aggression. “He’s finding a way, little by little, year by year, to stay in the strike zone," the coach said, “and that can only happen when his body slows down."
They talk about calmness, and then Meulens has to hope it carries over to the plate, that the crowd doesn’t rile him up in the on-deck circle.
Even as Game 1 progressed perfectly, Meulens could see enormous expectations in his protégé. “He wanted to be a hero," the coach said, “because he got it taken away from him in 2010. ... And he plays with a lot of emotion, he works hard, so he was ready. And it was a special, special, special day for him."
In one night, starting off against the most intimidating pitcher in baseball, Sandoval matched nearly 10 percent of his team’s entire home-run output at home in the regular season. The Giants had hit only 31 homers at AT&T Park.
The way Sandoval hit his was almost as startling as the number. Teammate Aubrey Huff couldn’t get over the first one.
"I think you have to go back to Barry Bonds in his heyday to find somebody who can take a pitch up and in like that and not just hit it, but hit it out to dead center," he said. “I was astounded. It was pretty amazing."
Sandoval seemed fairly subdued after the game, especially for a guy with orange hair. He said repeatedly that he wanted to avoid getting too excited, as Meulens had instructed.
Huff speculated that a healthy Sandoval could hit 40 homers a year and that a more selective one could hit .350. But it may not be possible for him to stretch greatness over a long period. He may be a peer to Ruth, Jackson and Pujols only in the smallest of samples. His impulsiveness could assure that he never learns how to be more than lavishly gifted and wildly infatuated with the game.
But for this one night, he knew all he needed.