Sandoval is fit for a bounceback season

Sometimes Pablo Sandoval(notes) gazes at himself in the mirror. He understands the narcissism involved. He doesn't mind. It's tough not to stare when the person staring back looks nothing like you remember him.

"It's like it's not me," Sandoval said. "I tell myself, 'Damn, bro, I was fat.' "

He's still getting used to it all. He steps on a scale today and it says 237 pounds. That's about 45 off what he carried last year, when Sandoval lived like a Chris Farley character: quick with a smile, self-deprecating with a joke, never taken seriously because of his obesity. He still answers to Panda, derived from "Kung Fu Panda," the animated movie about, yes, a big, fat bear with skinny-bear skills. Some things won't go away.

The weight, though? That has melted, and the simple sight of the 5-foot-11 Sandoval wearing a San Francisco Giants uniform – filling it in, not out – is to behold baseball's greatest transformation this offseason. Following a year in which he lost his job, came within a few donuts – literal or figurative; take your pick – of a demotion, played a bit part in the Giants winning the World Series, the 24-year-old Sandoval had to ask himself: Is a career really worth eating away?

The answer is right on his face. Or, rather, not on his face. The second chin that accompanied Sandoval last year has gone on vacation. He is trimmer, believes his bat is quicker, knows his defense is better and, beyond baseball, has reigned in parts of his life which months ago made no sense.

"I lost control last year," Sandoval said. "Everything that happened … "

There was the divorce, when Sandoval was in Venezuela trying to arrange for custody of his daughter, Yoleadny; and the natural gas explosion near his apartment in San Bruno, Calif.; and the complete unraveling of his game. So he ate. And ate and ate and ate. And days after the Giants' championship, when a photo of him sitting in front of a 2,300-calorie sundae at Buca di Beppo emerged, heads shook. He was swallowing his career in public.

"I didn't even touch the ice cream," Sandoval said, and he knows how implausible that sounds. But he swears by it, and, really, at this point, what reason does he have to lie?

Sandoval understands this isn't something he can hide. If he gains weight again, there will be a line of fans waiting to drop his version of the F-bomb. He will look bad, feel bad and probably damn himself to the one place he didn't want to go: Fresno, Calif., where the Giants' Triple-A team plays and where GM Brian Sabean threatened to send him if he reported in 2011 like he did in 2010.

That offseason, Giants trainers engaged Sandoval in a weight-loss program called Operation Panda. The only thing operated was his digestive system. Sandoval tried to spin a narrative about how he had learned his lessons, and it looks quite familiar to this year's.

Sandoval in 2010: "I started spring training the way I want. I want to start the season at five pounds less: 250. That's fine right there."

Sandoval in 2011: "I want to be 225, man. Why not?"

Sandoval in 2010: "I feel great."

Sandoval in 2011: "I'm feeling great.

It didn't take much to sniff through Sandoval's crock last year. It was too visible. From along the first-base line, sitting in a wheelchair, Hall of Famer Willie McCovey noticed it.

"I just hope he can keep his weight down if he wants the longevity," McCovey said at the time. "You can eat your way out of the league. Hopefully, he won't do that. He looks big."

There have been no caveats to the praise from the Giants this spring. They love the reinvigorated Sandoval. As a plus-sized rookie in 2008, he hit .345. He followed that by hitting .330, slugging over .550 and playing adequate defense at third base. San Francisco can dream on this new-and-improved version, especially if he can find those 200 missing points off his OPS.

The verdict isn't unanimous, of course. While one scout said "this is the guy I was giving crazy reports in '09," another cautions that "losing weight doesn't always make you a better player. I don't see the bat speed. I wonder whether that was the issue." Sandoval leads the Giants with eight extra-base hits this spring – including one triple – and if he's anything close to his '09 form, the Giants' pitching could find itself a dangerous offensive complement.

Buster Posey(notes) has a 1.250 OPS this spring and could push Joe Mauer(notes) for title of best hitting catcher in baseball. Aubrey Huff(notes) is back, Mark DeRosa(notes) healthy, Brandon Belt(notes) on the cusp. If Sandoval can provide a little extra pop, he won't need to strive for another of his 2011 goals.

"I want 10 bunt hits," Sandoval said.

Back in '09, Sandoval reasons, he had seven. He's in plenty better form. So why not?

Everything is enhanced. He sees Yoleadny more. He's not embarrassed to wear fitted T-shirts. He's still not tired of the chicken and vegetables his mom cooks for him six days a week. On that seventh day, Sandoval allows himself to cheat. He had a slice of pizza last week. He may have a cookie on another. The impulses and urges, though, have disappeared.

"I'm changing my life," Sandoval said, and it's sounds great because of how he looks and acts and his conviction. Only he knows better. It's impossible to dismiss history based on one productive offseason. The reflection in that mirror is always staring back, always talking, always threatening to return an unwelcome guest.

The Panda is gone for now, and Pablo Sandoval's trying to keep him in hibernation for a long, long time.