COMMENTARY | In a world where the terms "anabolic," "EPO," and "masking agent" have muscled their way into our sports lexicon, San Francisco Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval is redefining performance enhancement.
His steroid: genetically infused hamburger patties. "The cream," well, now we're talking pastries. The Giants' switch-hitter even has a favorite stimulant: the cocoa bean.
And like more traditional cheaters, Sandoval, too, worries about being caught with his hand in the cookie jar -- though his is a literal metaphor.
That the 26-year-old Venezuelan boasts a (un)healthy appetite is hardly news. In 2010, manager Bruce Bochy benched a swelling Sandoval in favor of the comparatively svelte Juan Uribe. Scolded into compliance, Sandoval shed the extra weight the next year, regained the club's full-time spot at third base, and earned his first All-Star nod.
The 2012 season, however, was something of a compromise. After starting the year reasonably fit, Sandoval's weight stalked his then team-leading batting average. And though a sudden August drop in production raised concerns about the portly slugger's playing weight, San Francisco's push toward the playoffs left little time for interventions.
But if Giants management tabled discussions until the following season, Sandoval used the hiatus to order seconds, arriving at San Francisco's aptly located Scottsdale, Arizona, spring training complex some 266 pounds.
Most frustrating for general manager Brian Sabean is that the Giants would love to sign Sandoval to a long-term deal.
Where other clubs have slashed payroll and cut ties following championship runs, San Francisco has made a concerted effort to retain its roster's integrity. Eight of opening day's nine starters were with last year's club, including the recently inked-to-new-deals Matt Cain, Buster Posey, Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro, and Hunter Pence.
Sandoval would seem an obvious addition to that group. He's on the right side of 30, is the 2012 World Series MVP, and sets the table for reigning batting champion Buster Posey.
All that's been asked from the yo-yoing athlete is that he maintain a healthy playing weight.
Sandoval's continued self-indulgence, however, is becoming a risky investment. He'll collect $5.7 million this season and is due to make a whopping -- or whopper -- $8.2 million in the final year of his contract next season.
Of course, as is so often the case, the minds of management and fans aren't always united, and if Sandoval's vacuuming of trans fats has become frustrating to Giants brass, it's endeared him to Orange & Black faithful.
With a wry smile hinting at his latest mischief and free-swinging plate approach, the affectionately named "Kung Fu Panda" has become one of the Bay Area's most beloved sports figures, due in no small part to his squishy exterior. Sandoval, unlike the preponderance of major leaguers who belabor the "business" side of professional athletics, giggles and skips with the carefree attitude common to neighborhood sandlots.
His early-season success hasn't made the organization's predicament any easier, either.
Generously listed at 5-11, 240 pounds, Sandoval is tied for the NL lead in hits. He's batting .331, has belted 10 extra-base hits, and has grounded into only two double plays.
Sandoval's defense, also, has been terrific. He's fourth in the NL in assists at third base, fourth in double plays turned, and second in putouts from the hot corner. He's committed just two errors, and his .969 fielding percentage is well above the league average.
Which begs the question: How long can management delay a decision on Sandoval's future? Do the Giants ultimately chance having to match the switch-hitter's increased market value? Or, worse, do they risk souring an otherwise marketable Panda with their reluctance?
No one knows for sure, but, for the moment, Sandoval's mind is elsewhere. He's just hoping to go out for ice cream if they win.
John Foletta is a Yahoo! contributor who also covers Cal Athletics for Rivals.com. A Bay Area native, Foletta is a lifelong San Francisco Giants follower.
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