San Francisco's Pablo Sandoval might miss opening day next week with an elbow injury. (AP)
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Pablo Sandoval came to San Francisco Giants camp fat this year, like he does pretty much every year, because there are two truths about Pablo Sandoval, and one of them is he does not do skinny.
The other is that he's a remarkable hitter, preternaturally gifted like only a handful of players, maybe less. At 5-foot-11 (give or take – no, take – two inches) and 262 pounds (give or take – no, give – 20 pounds), Sandoval hits everything everywhere anytime anywhere. If anyone in baseball today is going to stroke a single off a pitch that bounces before it reaches home plate, it's him.
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This is Sandoval's dichotomy, what makes him who he is – and the relationship between the two may be parasitic. Sandoval does not hit like a madman because he's fat. It could be argued he's fat because he hits like a madman – because his success in spite of his weight gives him little motivation to shed it, and because his bat makes him a hero in his native Venezuela where he returns annually and comes back heavier, and because this character he plays, the silly Kung Fu Panda, doesn't fly for a skinny guy.
Sandoval recognizes and acknowledges all of these things as truth, and it's why as he nurses another injury – this an irritated ulnar nerve threatening to keep him out opening day after back-to-back seasons in which he missed at least 45 games – he knows he must adapt.
Just not yet.
"I've got this year and next year to change all the things," Sandoval said. "It's going to take me a while, but I can do it. I know I can do it.
"You need to learn. You need to grow up. You need to step up and know the difference between what you can do and what you can't."
[Related: SP Kyle Loshe signs with Brewers]
These are words he has uttered before, words he'll utter again, because he truly believes them and because he knows they're what he has to say. When Bruce Bochy, a future Hall of Fame manager, practically dialed up Jenny Craig during the first week of spring training when Sandoval showed up more overweight even for himself, it should be a sign for a player to transform himself or else.
Only this is Pablo Sandoval, now entering his fifth full season in the major leagues, coming off a World Series in which he took Justin Verlander deep in back-to-back at-bats in Game 1, hit another home run in his third at-bat and won MVP honors during the Giants' sweep. And then he went and played winter ball in Venezuela, popped another three homers in the championship series there, snagged another MVP trophy and cemented his status alongside Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Gonzalez as Venezuelan royalty.
And thing is, he's been fat the entire time, as a catcher who couldn't catch before and now as a third baseman who's passable at best but always as a hitter who does unspeakable things to baseballs. Every year someone complains about Panda's gut, and every year Panda smiles and hits with it hanging over his belt.
who can forget Operation Panda? – ended back where they began.At some point, the reasoning goes, his lack of conditioning will catch up. Sandoval thinks it's at 30 years old, when his metabolism may go to hell and send him up toward three bills. And it's why he's giving himself two years. He turns 27 in August and wants to allow a grace period for slip-ups, as all attempts at resolutions in the past –
"It's part of my job," Sandoval said. "People want to help me. They want the best for me. I always say thank you to people when they try that. I never get mad. I never get pissed. It's one of the things they're doing to help me to be in the big leagues.
"It is difficult. You've got a lot of things outside the field. But you need to learn and understand things you can do."
Sandoval finds his greatest difficulties in the things he loves. Everyone asks him to stay in San Francisco or Arizona or somewhere in the United States during the winter. They ask him this not just because his mother's arepas fatten him up but because they legitimately fear for his safety. Last offseason, kidnappers took Wilson Ramos, the Washington Nationals' catcher, before police reportedly rescued him. The son of Yorvit Torrealba and mother of Victor Zambrano were taken and returned safely, too. Henry Blanco's brother wasn't. Kidnappers murdered him.
Talking about home is uncomfortable for Sandoval. Deep down, he does understand: This is something that is not good for him. It's not good when kidnappers operate with seeming impunity, nor is it good when a president dies and potential political upheaval grips the country. Then again, it would be even worse, in Sandoval's mind, to abandon the place that molded him, to leave behind the people who matter most.
"I have to keep it real, man," Sandoval said. "When you're from another country, you want to spend time with your family. All your family can't come here. All your friends can't come here. You spend so much time here, you want to go there, too.
"It's tough. Everybody says, 'Stay here.' But when you don't mess with no one out there, you don't get in trouble. No one's going to mess around with you."
He doesn't know this. He just prays, like he prays that by 28 or 29 or 30 he'll no longer look like the Panda of old. He can do that because at this point in his life and career, nothing has told him otherwise. It gave him two World Series rings and gilded trophies and accolades abound and heroism in two places he loves.
Whether his elbow cooperates in time to play April 1 against the Los Angeles Dodgers or keeps him out for who knows how long, he'll return, and he'll hit, and he'll do so amid skeptical eyes all around, hopeful he can change before the parasite sucks him dry.
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