It takes a village to raise a Panda. That’s a lesson it took the San Francisco Giants more than a half decade to learn. And one the Red Sox never quite did.
Pablo Sandoval is officially the worst free agent signing in Red Sox history. Friday, Boston designated the the 29-year-old prize of the 2014 off-season for assignment less than three years after the robust Venezuelan became baseball’s highest-paid third baseman putting his paw print on a guaranteed five-year $95 million contract.
Gone but still owed, Sandoval will continue to be on the Sox payroll through the 2018-’19 seasons to the tune of $41 million. In addition, he has an extra $5 million coming in the form of the team’s buyout option for 2020.
In all, the Sox still owe their lovable bamboo muncher $48 million.
The Sox have seven days to try to trade him and perhaps pick up a player to be named later or cash for the effort. Otherwise, Sandoval will pass through waivers and become a free agent, ostensibly to sign on with a contender in need of a third baseman with three World Series rings cast adrift with more money than he could spend in four lifetimes and a recent history of attitude problems, underperforming and injury.
Those who recall Sandoval with fondness have an indelible image of peak Pablo crumbling to the turf in Kansas City as Madison Bumgarner got Salvador Perez to foul out into the third baseman’s waiting glove to lock up the 2014 World Series.
In front of the camera, Sandoval was an impish clubhouse presence who was part flash, part raw talent and all love when things were going well. He was also built for the postseason, shrugging off pressure and winking to the camera from the top dugout step before delivering timely hits and diving saves.
Behind the scenes, Sandoval was known as equal points kind and mercurial, attentive and headstrong—a clubhouse leader and at times, a source of rancor and contention. As with all athletes who are able to elevate their game beyond championship caliber in the clutch, his personal shortcomings and quirks were always dismissed with results.
…Sandoval’s propensity to indulge in Venezuelan winter ball and all the food, drink and distractions it offered, delivered him overweight yet starving for attention to Scottsdale every spring for the Giants. It was a narrative that grew tiresome enough for the front office to continue to draft and groom third base prospects during Sandoval’s tenure and back off the Pablo sweepstakes to give Boston the pole.
Nine months prior to San Francisco fans’ relegation of their Panda hats to the back of the closet, Sandoval spent the winter working out with a personal trainer, eating right and eschewing off-season antics in his home country. The two-time All Star and 2012 World Series MVP said and did all the right things, coming into his seventh and final season with the Giants all smiles with 40 pounds of weight shed from his near-300-lb. brush with obesity the season prior.
“I wanted to show my maturity,” he said at the time. “The criticism I got made me grow up. It motivated me. [I wanted to] feel good not just physically but as a person, because I know I accomplished my goal, which everybody said I couldn’t do in Venezuela.”
Here he is, resplendent.
— Jorge L. Ortiz (@jorgelortiz) February 15, 2014
Sandoval not only said the right things, he arrived at camp early, worked out with the infield, (allegedly) ran reps up and down Camelback Mountain, pushed for excellence and put on the show of shows for a player in his prime and in the final year of his contract. He hit .279 with 16 homers—respectable numbers for sure. But in the World Series, he shone brightest, solidifying his role as this decade’s Mr. October logging 12 hits and a .429 BA. Sandoval was the final baseball player to cross the plate of the 2014 season as Michael Morse hit him in with the game seven-clinching RBI.
For their part, the Giants’ front office, training staff, players and PR lackeys all supported Sandoval through the ups and downs. In public, he routinely credited teammates Hunter Pence and Buster Posey for keeping him focused and on the straight-and-narrow. Privately, it was a constant push-pull between the Giants forcing Sandoval to conform to numerous diets, drills and workout regimen and finally, at some point in the season, every season, letting go—letting Panda be Panda.
Sandoval, the Giants learned, is a Stradivarius. When in the hands of amateurs, he sounds like shit, but when handled by a professional and allowed to play his way, he is unparalleled, one-of-a-kind.
Boston never got that and part of it was based on the amount they committed up front. Almost $100 million isn’t supposed to buy a tear-down or a used clunker. And for his part, Sandoval responded to superstar contract pressure by doing what he does best—revolting.
His first training camp in a Red Sox uniform, he came in overweight, ditto and second and the third. He was called out in public by his manager, something the Giants were always careful not to do. “There was a need for Pablo to come back in better overall condition,” manager John Farrell said as Sandoval arrived at camp in 2016 looking like this:
— Jared Carrabis (@Jared_Carrabis) February 21, 2016
Farrell said Sandoval was ordered to lose weight in the off-season. Sandoval countered he was never told to do so. Frustration manifest after he hit just .245 with 10 home runs the prior season, career lows. He played poorly in the spring, got benched almost right away and ended up under the knife of Dr. James Andrews having exploratory surgery on his left shoulder to determine the source of a chronic injury.
For the 2016 campaign, Sandoval’s stat line is three games with a .000 BA. He was booed by fans during the home opener.
This year, seemingly healthy and svelte once more and on a team coming off a playoff appearance, Sandoval failed to deliver in limited playing time. Through 32 games, he collected 21 hits for a .212 average buffeted by unspectacular play in the field. The Red Sox in his absence could promote prospect Rafael Devers or likely will trade for a third baseman before month’s end.
The legend of Kung Fu Panda is still present in the Giants’ locker room as the core unit that won a trio of World Series trophies has similarly struggled in his absence. Legend has it players used to check in with hotel front desks to eighty-six Sandoval’s ability to order room service after night road games. They carried healthy snacks for him like soccer moms. But most of all, they made sure he was happy.
And his happiness, in turn, made them complete.