FORT MYERS, Fla. — It is 7:30 a.m. on a warm spring morning, and the Panda is in a crouch, arms up, palms out, shuffling right and then left, right and then left, right and then left. Quickquickquick! The Boston Red Sox are two hours from taking the field, but when you’re playing from behind, the days start early, outside, with agility drills.
“We’re encouraged,” Red Sox president and general manager Dave Dombrowski says. “I give him a lot of credit.”
It is 10 a.m. under a hot Florida sun, and during infield practice the Panda charges a bunt designed to land in no-man’s land between the mound and the third-base line. “GotItGotItGotItGotIt!” barks the Panda, pouncing on the bunt as if it is the last one he may ever see.
“I told myself three things,” says first baseman Hanley Ramirez, comparing his own trip to the abyss in Boston in 2015 to Panda’s disappearance in 2016. “How everything you can control, you have to control. You know you’ve gotta produce on the field. Work hard this offseason, go to camp and try to eliminate a lot of the bad energy.
“And then, go out and kick some ass.”
It is 10:30 a.m. on a back field here, Hanley delivered that message to Panda a few days ago, and if it is possible to kick some ass in a benign spring drill, Pablo Sandoval is kicking some ass.
“Nice!” exclaims infield coach Brian Butterfield after watching the Red Sox’s one-time and, they hope, future third baseman field a bunt, wheel and fire a strike to second base. “Nice!
It is shortly after noon, field work done, weight room on deck, when Sandoval stops for a short break and considers the question: In a season full of them, what was your lowest moment last year? The absolute worst point?
The big smile disappears from his face. The light melts out of his eyes.
“Everything,” he says. “Every moment.”
It is not easy to climb inside the mind of the Panda. His factory settings are more instigation than introspection. He is two-parts mirth, one-part myth. Generally, Panda doesn’t ponder.
Then again, never before has he been humiliated the way he was in 2016, when he reported to camp vastly overweight, lost his third-base job to Travis Shaw, made it into just three regular-season games, mustered one walk in seven plate appearances and then hurt his shoulder and was finished for the season.
He batted .000/.143/.000 in the second season of a five-year, $95 million deal that now teeters dangerously toward bust. Because in 2015, Panda didn’t exactly charm the denizens of Fenway Park, either, hitting .245/.292/.366 with just 10 homers and 47 RBI in 505 plate appearances.
So here he is after a winter in which he strengthened his left shoulder following last May’s labrum surgery, revamped his right-handed swing and clearly rededicated himself to conditioning. He is said to have shed close to 40 pounds. Always, his surprisingly quick feet and quick hands belied his body type. Now noticeably thinner, he appears to be giving himself a real chance again.
“In the situation I put myself in,” Panda says, “I have to work hard.”
In the situation I put myself in … those seven words maybe are the best reasons for renewed hope for Red Sox fans and Panda lovers throughout the land. Sandoval is taking full responsibility for past transgressions. It plays into why Dombrowski and others around here describe themselves as “encouraged.”
The fat jokes are easy, easier than shooting pandas in a barrel. The picture of him with his shirt out (h/t to The Boston Globe) went viral in an instant last spring. In his first and only start of the season last April in Toronto, in Boston’s fourth game, he took a hack at a pitch and his belt snapped.
You want a low point? There’s your low point.
As far as moments when he felt things slipping away for good?
“Every moment,” Sandoval says.
He is still just 29, with plenty of prime left if he can catch up to it.
On the other hand, there is every chance, too, that for the duration of his contract, the Red Sox will be throwing more good money after bad into the bamboo landfill.
Which direction will this go?
“We all learn lessons,” Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis says. “We relax at the wrong times sometimes. And life and the game say, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ Especially in today’s world, with social media.
“I love what he’s done this year. It takes a lot of dedication. He rededicated himself to, ‘I want to be the best third baseman and help the Sox win.’
“I’m in his corner 100 percent.”
Sandoval has cut his West Coast ties, having moved to Miami full time. He worked out all offseason at a gym with a personal trainer and, among others, Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera. He fell right into step with Cabrera, who, at 33, is four years older than Sandoval yet still regularly worked out twice a day during the winter, at 7:30 a.m. and again at 10:30 a.m.
For Panda, that was eye-opening.
“Especially him,” Sandoval says enthusiastically, in full admiration of Cabrera. “All the time he has in his career, all that he’s done, and for him to still get up and be at the facility to work out at 7:30.”
Though Cabrera didn’t play Dear Abby and offer advice for all of Sandoval’s problems, he nevertheless was clearly an enormous influence.
“We don’t talk baseball,” Sandoval says. “We talked everything in general. He said, ‘You know what? You are a great baseball player, but you can be better.’”
One of Cabrera’s suggestions was boxing. It helps strengthen the upper body, he told Sandoval. So starting in mid-January, three days a week, Sandoval added the speed bag to his workout repertoire.
“I never see people working so hard like him,” Sandoval says of Miggy.
Jose Altuve, Houston’s two-time batting champion (2014 and 2016) and whose friendship with both Sandoval and Cabrera dates back to the trio’s native Venezuela, joined them for a week and came away impressed.
“He looks in great shape,” Altuve tells B/R. “Different player. Obviously, he’s going to have a good season. He’s healthy.”
As things deteriorated last year, Sandoval wasn’t so much sent into exile as he was dispatched to support meetings. Despite everything on the field going south, Sandoval’s demeanor never did—nor did the support of his teammates.
“His attitude always has been great,” second baseman Dustin Pedroia says. “He was hurting, but he never showed it. He’s always been a great teammate. He looks fit and healthy this spring, and that’s what we need.”
After his May surgery, Sandoval spent much of the late summer and fall rehabbing among rookies and young prospects at Boston’s spring training base in Fort Myers, Florida.
“It was good,” he says. “I had fun. Guys were working hard, and I have to be an example for them.”
To that end, he says, time with the kids re-energized him.
“Seeing them working so hard in Rookie League and Instructional League inspired me,” he says. “There are some great guys.”
Like Davis says, sometimes as we make our way through life, we relax at the wrong times. Maybe the combination of the worst failure of his career with the energy he saw from the young minor leaguers ultimately will help jolt him back to his previous All-Star level.
There are those around the league who find it impossible to believe Panda won’t come roaring back. One of them, Detroit catcher Alex Avila, was behind the plate in the 2012 World Series, when Sandoval jacked three home runs in Game 1 en route to earning the Fall Classic Most Valuable Player award that October.
“It’s surprising,” Avila says of Sandoval’s swoon. “He was very consistent year-in and year-out, and when you’re that consistent, you expect it.
“At the same time, he’s not going to be the last well-known name to struggle. It will be interesting to see how he bounces back. In the history of the game, there are guys who have had bad years and people think it’s the end. It’s motivating. When Justin [Verlander] had his down year [in 2014], he was doing everything he could to get back.”
What the Red Sox have seen so far this spring is very similar. Third base is there for the taking, with only Brock Holt and Josh Rutledge standing in Sandoval’s way. Shaw was shipped to Milwaukee over the winter along with two prospects for reliever Tyler Thornburg.
“We’re hopeful he’ll take it,” Dombrowski says. “But he’s got to do it. We’re confident he will.”
Fans lining the back fields here appear eager to place their hearts in his trust again. Several hollered words of encouragement as he and his teammates worked the other day. At the least, it’s clear that the man who once was a cult hero in San Francisco still has the qualities needed to secure a second chance in Boston.
“This team has got a great fanbase,” Sandoval says. “They support everyone. I’m working hard. I have to show them, I have to show the fans and my teammates that I respect the game and that I’m going to maintain all of the work that I’ve been doing.”
What he learned most from the misery of 2016, he says, is simple.
“That I have to keep working hard no matter what the situation is,” he says. “No matter what, you have to keep grinding.”
And what, now, would he consider success? “Getting my team to the World Series,” he says. “That’s it. Teamwork is the most important thing to me. I don’t care about my numbers. I just want to give Boston another chance to win a World Series.”
Truth be told, Sandoval is not the first player in this clubhouse to stumble upon landing in Boston. Ramirez’s first year was disappointing. Rick Porcello, the defending AL Cy Young winner, flopped upon arrival. And David Price didn’t exactly sizzle last summer.
“I think you’ve got to block out the things that are potential distractions and focus on what you can control,” Porcello says, echoing Ramirez’s advice for a Boston bounce-back. “Throughout your career, how you got yourself ready, those are the things you still need to pay attention to through the noise.”
Through that noise, however this turns out, despite Panda’s battle of the bulge, one thing is clear.
“Maybe he wasn’t in the best shape of his life last spring, but I don’t think Pablo Sandoval has ever not cared,” Davis says. “He got himself in shape this year, he looks great, and now the focus has to be on his playing, not his weight. He can handle that, and that’s where the focus should be.
“I will never forget: I saw this kid hit .330 with 25 home runs [for the Giants in 2009]. And I still believe he can do those things.”
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.