Panda a hit at youth baseball clinic in Taiwan
Third baseman thrilled with experience during exhibition series
TAICHUNG, Taiwan -- The children crowded around their larger-than-life Major League superhero action figure. He smiled and laughed along with them, and he showed them that even a boisterous guy from Venezuela could learn a thing or two about Taiwan.
"Kung Fu hsung mao yao lai ler!" Pablo Sandoval shouted over and over. "Kung Fu Panda is coming!"
The San Francisco Giants third baseman is loving life these days. He's coming off an All-Star season, and now he's plying his trade as a key figure on the MLB All-Star team that's playing a five-game exhibition series against the Chinese Taipei national team while touring the island country of Taiwan.
The MLB All-Stars, who have won the first three games in the exhibition series against the Chinese Taipei national team, will head to the city of Kaohsiung for Games 4 and 5, played at Chengcing Lake Stadium. The final two games of the series will air on MLB.TV and MLB Network at 5 p.m. ET on Saturday and at 9 p.m. ET on Sunday.
In the midst of the baseball and sightseeing and cultural immersion, Sandoval is getting to enjoy the experience alongside a host of Giants teammates, from outfielder Andres Torres and reliever Ramon Ramirez to the team's manager, Bruce Bochy, the bench coach, Ron Wotus, and the bullpen catcher, Billy Hayes. He said it's been well worth the long trip.
"I had a new, great experience being in the All-Star Game, and now I've got a new, great experience being here in Taiwan," Sandoval said while on the field before Game 3 in Taichung. "Being in a city like this and on a club like this, you learn a lot of things from the people you're with. Meeting new teammates from other teams, it's exciting and you're always learning new things."
Learning has been a hallmark of Sandoval's young career.
He burst upon the big-league scene in his first full season of 2009 and made a name -- and an unforgettable nickname -- for himself quickly, batting .330 with 25 home runs, 90 RBIs, 44 doubles and a .943 OPS and showing surprising agility and soft hands at the hot corner.
But he reported for Spring Training out of shape in 2010, and by the time the Giants were riding their stingy starting pitching to a memorable World Series run, the Panda was relegated to backup and part-time designated-hitter duty, the product of diminished regular-season numbers (.268, 13 homers, 63 RBIs, .743 OPS) and an enlarged frame.
Sandoval got his ring, but he also got his reality check.
"The GM [Brian Sabean] said to me that it's nothing bad, but he was being serious with me, straight out," Sandoval said. "He told me, 'You're a great player, but you have to do your job.' So that's what I did. I worked out during the offseason, got back in shape, and that was the key for me. When you lose your job, you have to get focused again."
Sandoval looked like a different player when the Giants reported to Spring Training in Scottsdale, Ariz., in February, and while things didn't come together for the 2011 team in the form of a postseason appearance, Sandoval was back on the map -- and at third base. He batted .315 with 20 homers and 70 RBIs in 426 at-bats, he put up an OPS of .909, he played in his first Midsummer Classic and he got back on the same page as his manager and coaching staff.
"Pablo had some work to do, and he knows it, as far as getting in the proper condition that he needs to be in," Bochy said. "And it paid off for him. It's a great learning experience."
With renewed commitment to staying in shape and on the field, Sandoval and his teammates can now concentrate on what makes him so special, as a talent and as a teammate. To a man, the Giants say their third baseman is one of the most positive influences in the clubhouse, and those traits have been on display in Taiwan.
"It's an infectious personality," Bochy said. "His passion for the game, people, life. He's always smiling and having a good time. You walk into that clubhouse and he lights it up. Guys just really like being around him."
But don't let that fool you into thinking he isn't all about winning.
"He's definitely passionate about the game, he's outspoken, loves to have a good time," Wotus said. "Since day one, when I've seen him come up as a player, the thing that impressed me about him was that he was into the game, he was boisterous, he's not a quiet guy, and he enjoys it. The guys around him enjoy it and he brings a lot of personality to the game."
"He could be 0-for-4," Bochy added, "but he's in here greeting guys, rooting for them, and that's what other guys find out about him when they get a chance to know him."
And now Sandoval is in Taiwan, soaking in yet another experience on the journey to become the best he can be. He said he's been humbled by the adoration of the Taiwanese fans and that he has great respect for their keen baseball knowledge.
"It's impressed me," Sandoval said. "You know that they have Chien-Ming Wang and Hong-Chih Kuo, those two guys grew up here, so you know that they know about Major League Baseball here.
"But it's still exciting when you come to another country and they recognize you."