FORT MYERS, Fla. – Surely some of this would not have happened had Pablo Sandoval given the appearance he gave the tiniest crap about his job. Like one of those bunny pellets’ worth. One of those hamster ones you can barely see. Seriously, pick a small pet and its midden.
So here we are.
Day One, Year Three of five years and $95 million, that so far counting for 129 games and 10 home runs and a negative WAR, and even if you’re not a big WAR person you can probably conclude that’s not especially good.
So here we are.
When I see Sandoval I think of the first time I asked a scout about him. It went like this:
“You seen that kid Sandoval up in San Francisco?”
“You mean Fat Ichiro?”
The guy meant it as a compliment. I loved that. Sandoval was all round and fast twitch and handsy and beneath it all had this knack for knowing where a pitch was going to wind up, especially from the left side, where he finished his swing high and majestic, the flourish to another line drive. Besides, Ichiro was about as thick as a pantry door. Next to him everybody looked, at best, untidy.
Sandoval was adored because of the way he played and the way he looked and what the way he looked said about baseball being for everybody as long as you worked your butt off for it. Then, long story short, he got the fun nickname and he won some championships and left for a lot of money in Boston, where the people didn’t know him very well and where there are two sure ways to fall into disfavor – fail to produce and fail to appear to give a hamster poop.
People want to like him. He’s a sound ballplayer with an infectious spirit. He’s young. And now he’s starting over, much as he can and much as it’ll be allowed.
“I have to prove everything,” he said Thursday afternoon. “Especially when you’re coming from [an] off year after injuries, you come back and you have to prove a lot of things to the fans, to the team, to your teammates, you know, to the sport.”
It’s not really the injuries, of course, that being the surgery nine months ago on his left shoulder. That’s part of it but not nearly all of it, because folks generally forgive the unavoidable breakage that comes with the game. He arrived overweight – and defiant about it – to spring training in 2015 and followed with his worst professional season. Undeterred, he showed up a year later maybe larger than he was the previous spring, turned his belt to shrapnel in his second regular-season game, and was done – the shoulder – after three games.
Meantime, the Red Sox, who’d poured all that money into Sandoval the All-Star third baseman, got almost nothing offensively out of third base in 2016, the worst production in baseball in fact (they were bottom six in 2015 with Sandoval as their regular third baseman), and somehow still managed to win 93 games and the AL East.
Point being, Sandoval is 30 years old and has taken his turn as one of the better players in the game at times across his nine years in the league, and yet 2017 looks more like a third chance than a second chance, and eventually a guy has to care enough to live up to the bare minimum his job requires. Or, I guess, not. That’d be up to him.
The other point being, it appears Sandoval has chosen the former, that being to come to training camp in something like baseball shape so that one day he can help his teammates win baseball games. And that’s great, because the Red Sox should have World Series expectations and it sure would help to get a little something out of their third baseman for a change.
This is what would be known as the first step in a journey of 90 feet. He is a lucky man, Pablo is. Lucky for guaranteed contracts and forgiving teammates and patient organizations (what choice did they have?) and new seasons. He worked too hard to get too good to be the guy nobody can rely on, and on Thursday he said he wanted to play another eight years so that his young son might someday watch him. The sweat he spilled to get just back to here might well be measured in buckets, because rehabilitation from surgery is tortuous and because lifestyle changes aren’t much easier.
There is a way all the way back. It started months ago, but really it became meaningful Thursday, when Red Sox position players reported. A few of them, Sandoval included, took batting practice on the field. That swing, especially from the left side, was, as always, elegant and powerful. He’s down – what? – 30 pounds? Forty? More? He laughed with his buddies and wore his cap crooked and jaunty and seemed ready – eager even – to get on with it.
“Like I told him, out of five or six games, I just need two good games out of him, at least,” said Hanley Ramirez, who knows the experience of early stumbles in Boston. “We just got to build his confidence back. And let him know we got his back. We need him to win. We’re going to need him.
“It’s when you gotta stay tough. You gotta have that guy right there next to you and let him know you gotta leave all those things behind and start new. This is spring training, new year, and we’re here for a reason.”
Manager John Farrell is generally not in the business of gifting jobs, though he could be cornered on this one. Still, a healthy, directed, happy, slender-ish Sandoval would go a long way toward A) covering for the retirement of David Ortiz; and B) repeating in the AL East.
“He’s coming in to reclaim his position,” Farrell said. “That’s something that he and I have talked about a couple times throughout the winter. He’s done a great job of making the first step, and that is the body composition that he had to address. He’s done that. I think he’s put himself in a good position from just a physical standpoint to go out and compete.
“What we’re looking for out of Panda is just the player that he was when he signed a free-agent contract here. To get back to that level. He’s done a very good job on the physical end of things coming into camp.”
He even called it, “Panda’s time.”
Sandoval said he’s good to go. His shoulder, the lead shoulder from the right side, is sound. He killed his winter workouts, even picking up boxing at the suggestion of friend and fellow Venezuelan Miguel Cabrera. And his head is clear. His teammates are happy to have him. A season awaits, as does the remainder of his career. He gets to choose how that will go. What the appearance of that will be.
“I just want to play,” he said.
So here we are.
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