SACRAMENTO — The part about the grass being greener elsewhere? Well, Pablo Sandoval sure blasted that theory out of the ballpark, didn’t he?
The once-beloved Panda, the former Giants third baseman known for his nimble feet, soft hands, hitting proficiency and amiable personality, left with a bang and returned three years later with a whimper.
As he continues his comeback, he gives his confession, recites his regrets about taking the money (a $95 million contract) and running to the Boston Red Sox, and swears that if he could do it over again, he never would have left the place where he enjoyed prolonged, if occasionally interrupted success.
“The things I said (about Giants organization), I apologized for, because I’m a human being,” Sandoval said late Tuesday after going 1 for 4 in his Triple-A Sacramento debut. “I was emotional at that moment. I came here to prove that I can be the guy that I was here. I just came here to play my game, play the way I can play. Try to get better. Stay healthy. Be happy.”
But the gut issue is this: Can the endangered species — aka the Panda — be saved?
Sandoval might have left his heart in San Francisco when he bolted for Boston, but he presumably left everything else in the Bay Area as well. His glove. His mobility. His stroke from the right side. A recent Red Sox scouting report on the Venezuela native reads something like this: Arrived at spring training in much better shape than the previous two seasons; despite substantial weight loss, could not run or field his position; struggled to hit from the right side, so no longer is a formidable switch-hitting threat.
In other words, while Giants fans continue to debate whether to forgive and forget, rehashing the unflattering comments Sandoval directed at everyone in the organization not named Bruce Bochy or Hunter Pence, the clock and a career stunningly tick away.
One of the great mysteries of these past three seasons is how things could have gone so terribly wrong for Sandoval, who turns 31 on Aug. 11.
Thirty-one. In baseball, that’s barely out of diapers. He should be in the physical prime of his career, not reduced to groveling for a job and forced to prove he can stay healthy, keep losing weight, still play a mean third base and get his groove back from the right side.
None of that sounds particularly unreasonable or unattainable, until one looks closer at his three-year skid. After hitting .294 in seven seasons with the Giants (and never below .268), Sandoval hit .237 with 14 home runs and 59 RBIs in his injury-plagued years in Boston, bottoming out after three games and shoulder surgery in 2016. Though he showed up at spring training this year noticeably lighter, if far from svelte, he was only modestly better; he was hitting .212 and considered a defensive liability when released by the Red Sox.
So, yes, that indeed was Panda playing third on a Tuesday night in West Sacramento, batting second and wearing No. 47 instead of his familiar, but too-snug No. 48. He switched to the looser jersey following batting practice, during which he knocked several sharp line drives from the left side and took another 10 rips right-handed.