The Giants aren’t the only ones counting on a return of Pablo Sandoval, otherwise known as "The Panda" through the Bay Area, in 2011.
Fans desperately want their happy, fun-loving, quirky, hitting machine back and hope the commitment that he made to his offseason training program will bring back the Panda of 2009.
When Sandoval exploded onto the scene in 2009, he was a lovable, free-swinging youngster who had an infectious love for playing the game. Even before he was given his famous nickname, Giant fans embraced the "big fella" from Venezuela who was originally drafted as a catcher, and then was converted to a third baseman in the minor leagues.
The 2009 season didn’t have a ton of bright spots for the Giants, but Sandoval was clearly one of them.
At only 22-years-of-age, Sandoval terrorized opposing pitchers from both sides of the plate, completing his first full year in the big leagues with a 330 avg, 25 home runs and 90 RBI’s.
As Sandoval raked in run after run, his popularity grew and so did his alter ego, known as Panda-monia.
Sandoval received his nickname from Barry Zito during a game early in his career when he jumped high in the air to avoid being tagged out. The nickname not only stuck, it caught on like wild fire, as fans of all ages were instantly wearing panda hats and in some cases, entire panda costumes to the ballpark.
Scott Ostler, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle commented that Sandoval’s rise through the minors, coupled with the immediate impact he had in the big leagues was reminiscent of Will Clark and Robby Thompson in the mid 80’s.
While the correlation is applicable, not even the legendary “Will the Thrill” persona took over an entire fan base as quickly as Kung Fu Panda did during 2009, and it wasn’t just about Sandoval’s performance at the plate that converted so many so fast.
Every time the camera got a glimpse of Sandoval, he was smiling, or laughing, or dancing in the dugout, which was just an appetizer all leading up to the featured entertainment of the afternoon: Sandoval’s pre-at bat routine, a ceremonial ritual befitting an ancient witch doctor.
Fans in attendance actually started keeping track of Sandoval’s spot in the lineup between innings to see if he was due to lead off an inning. They made sure not to leave their seat anytime he was on deck so they wouldn’t miss the voodoo dance on the way to the plate.
The routine started off innocently enough, Sandoval walking to the plate, big turn around the box, hop skip two paces in front of the plate, a couple of taps of the bat, start the gloves tightening three of four times, neck twist back and forth, and oh my god, is this guy for real?
It was part painful, part hilarious watching Sandoval get to the batter’s box, and then once he did, the real fun began.
Duane Kuiper, Giants announcer, got it right when he said Sandoval never saw a pitch he didn’t like.
Sandoval was famous for swinging at balls head high, or as they were bouncing in the dirt, even balls that were destined to hit him except he would foul them off.
Yet, he still finished the year with a 330 avg and for much of the year it was much higher.
Enter 2010, the expectations, the sophomore season, the new scouting reports, and the extra weight.
No one knows exactly how much weight Sandoval put on from 2009 to 2010, but the estimates are in the ballpark of 25-30 lbs.
Added to the extra weight was the new approach pitchers were taking against Sandoval, as he rarely saw anything in the strike zone early in the count.
Sandoval would chase the ball out of the zone, but in 2010 the result was markedly different. Either Sandoval was an easy out early in the count, weakly hitting a ball that was out of the strike zone, or he was quickly down 0-2.
I stopped counting, but I’m pretty sure Sandoval hit into 6247 inning ending double plays last season. The ball always hit perfect for the infielder, carrying him right to the bag and on the easy hop.
With all of his struggles, more Panda hats appeared, Panda fever continued to spread. Fans couldn’t wait to see Sandoval break out of his slump and start hitting.
“He’s just off to a slow start," fans would say to each other. "The Kung Fu’s coming back.”
Even with the start that Aubrey Huff had, Sandoval continued to be the fan favorite and the focus of conversation around the water cooler.
I know I said it a few times, “yeah, The Giants are doing ok, just wait till Panda starts hitting, then they’ll really make their run.”
The problem was he never did turn it around.
There were a couple glimpses of the old Kung Fu magic, right after the All-Star break, and for a week in August. For the most part, the Panda continued to struggle.
Fast forward to 2011 and the Panda is back in full force.
He spent the entire offseason training with a staff that included personal fitness experts and a chef. Sandoval has lost a reported 30 lbs. and is again hitting the cover off the ball.
He started off hot, hitting .333 with two homeruns and seven RBI’s over the first 10 games, but has cooled off a bit since.
Still, he has recorded more at bats than any other Giant this spring, he is second in hits, tied for second in RBI’s and his teammates say he is in the best shape they have seen him in since he came up in 2008.
While it is of utmost importance that Sandoval establishes himself again as a force in the lineup, Giant fans are as excited about having him back just so they can cheer for their Panda, a player who in a very short amount of time has clearly made an indelible mark in the hearts and minds of so many of the Giant faithful.
Sandoval has his whole promising career in front of him, a team that is loaded with top tier pitchers, an organization that is committed to winning, and a fan base that adores him.
Giants fans love that Sandoval committed himself this offseason to regain his 2009 form. When his name is announced in AT&T park on opening day, they will let him hear their appreciation.
The hope is that 2011 will be the rebirth of the Panda and once again Panda-monia will take over the city.