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Bear hugs, big smiles: Sanó reunites with former teammates after unlikely return to MLB

ANAHEIM, CALIF. – Miguel Sanó was the most popular man before Friday's game at Angel Stadium, chatting with a few of his former teammates and coaches before he took pregame batting practice, then chatting with more familiar faces after completing his batting practice rounds.

There was a lot to talk about since Sanó left the Twins. He was limited to 20 games in 2022 because of a torn meniscus in his left knee and inflammation when he returned after the surgery. The Twins bought out the last year of his contract and he didn't play anywhere last summer.

That could have marked the end of Sanó's baseball story. Instead, he lost more than 55 pounds, played well in the Dominican Winter League, earned a minor league contract with the Angels and impressed enough to become a starting third baseman.

"Every athlete's nightmare is injuries," Sanó said through a team interpreter. "That happened to me but now I'm here. I'm training to be healthy and I'm doing my best here with this team. I'm very thankful."

There were a lot of smiles and laughs from Sanó before Friday's game. When he was engaged in a conversation with Twins outfielder Manuel Margot and assistant hitting coach Rudy Hernandez, Byron Buxton snuck behind his longtime former teammate and gave him a bear hug.

"I'm proud of him," Buxton said. "Obviously, he had a tough road to end here with the injuries. It's just one of those things you can't control."

Sanó, who will turn 31 on May 11, described his emotions for this weekend as "super excited." He was back with his friends after nearly two years. He was grateful to the Twins, he said, because they were the organization that gave him his first opportunity.

An All-Star in 2017 and one of the key members of the 2019 Bomba Squad, Sanó ranks 12th in franchise history in home runs (162). When he thought about his favorite memories with the Twins, he broke into a smile.

"I had a few good moments when I hit some homers at the right time, the right moment," he said.

Twins manager Rocco Baldelli added: "He's a great teammate and also played hard. Those are the things I remember much more clearly or more on the front of my mind when I think of Miggy than any of the stuff he does on the field. He was a very good guy to have around here."

Sanó was out of the spotlight last summer, remaining in the Dominican Republic, but he remained in touch with Buxton and other former teammates — "We're a family," he said. He told them he was working on losing weight and he wanted to return to the major leagues.

"We stuck together," said Buxton, who rose through the minor leagues at the same time as Sanó. "He's still like my brother."

The Angels were drawn to Sanó when he played in the Dominican Winter League. Few people in the world can hit the ball as hard as him, and his weight loss stood out.

"He lost 55 pounds, and he still looks like he could be a [defensive] end in the NFL," said Torii Hunter, the former Twins star now working for the Angels.

Sanó impressed during spring training. Perry Minasian, the Angels general manager, said Sanó was often on the field at 7 a.m. with infield coach Ryan Goins to work on his defense. Anthony Rendon partially tore his hamstring last week, and the Angels will turn to Sanó as their regular third baseman.

"For us, seeing the kind of shape and the commitment he made, that's what got us curious," Minasian said. "I think every team that has a certain level of success, there might be a story or two that you didn't expect. We're hoping he could be a story for us and have a quality year for us, especially with Anthony out."

Sanó entered Saturday with a .352 on-base percentage, three doubles, a homer and five RBI in 21 games. The Angels are hopeful they can identify things in his swing to help him cut down on his strikeouts, but his average exit velocity is tops in the majors.

"You see the motivation and how hungry he is to get back to being what he was, if not better than what he was," Minasian said.