Friday, August 14, 2009

Panda Saves the World by Ken Derr

Unemployment just hit 11.6% in California. The state is paying its bills with IOU’s. Parks are closing. Schools are setting up corner graphing calculator stands. Even the Governator cannot stem the tide of woe sweeping across this once golden stretch of promise, and most jaded observers believe no one can.

What we need is a little hope. Something to believe in. Someone larger-than-life who can give us a sliver of possibility in a place where people have quit on themselves.

What we need, clearly, is a fat, switch-hitting, ambidextrous Venezuelan panda.

Pablo Sandoval may be our only chance. The 22-year old Giant rookie third baseman is the brightest bulb on a coast gone dark. Yes, “the round mound of pound” led the resurgent Giants in hitting (.333), homers (15) and RBIs (55) at the All-Star Break , but a man charged with teasing out Giant fans’ smiles (and solving the state budget crisis, bringing peace to the Middle East, and capturing Osama bin Laden) is going to need more than numbers. He’s going to need style, which is something the Panda exudes, with effervescent ease.

Pablo was born in the fighting port city of Puerta Cabello, Venezuela, which explains a few things, when you consider that the World Values Survey consistently find Venezuelans among the happiest people on earth. This oil-rich nation has produced five Miss Worlds, five Miss Universes, and five Miss Internationals (no, I don’t know the difference either, but I’d be willing to learn), which might have something to do with it, but there is also that Caribbean, happy-go-lucky exuberance oozing from Pablo’s pores. He’s not only Mr. Excitement—he’s Mr. Happy, and his unbridled enthusiasm has won the hearts of the dying faithful in Baghdad-by-the-Bay.

But if gusto were enough to part the seas and clouds, Richard Simmons would be king. A hero needs game, and that is something Pablo brings every night. He is currently fourth in the National League in hitting and sixth in slugging percentage. He missed the All-Star game only because the National League wanted to set the record for futility. The NL’s anemic offense achieved its goal that night, but Frisco fans seethed, knowing who didn’t pinch hit late to save the game for jumpy starter, Timmy Lincecum. “I had the numbers, but not the votes,” Pablo offered humbly about his snub. Somewhere, Charlie Manuel should be sucking paste.

Let’s try another number: 246, which the program lists as Pablo’s weight. Now that doesn’t look so high, until you see 5’ 11” next to it. So his zest for living extends to the buffet table, but that has only enhanced his legend. To see him run is to fall in love like a middle-schooler. When he leaped over Dodger catcher Danny Ardoin last year to score, Barry Zito dubbed him Kung-Fu Panda. In a post-post 9/11 return to irony, he is now “Little Panda.” My eight-year old son was so moved by the third-baseman that he wrote his first song about him, rhyming “runs so fast” with “such a fat ass.” How many songs of praise have your team’s infielders inspired lately?
Early, Frisco fans were concerned that third base might be a challenge for the former minor league catcher and first baseman, but Pablo has been lithe at the hot corner, making only four errors. He has even shown some hop on liners, turning potential doubles into Sports Center outs. In the nimble big man sweepstakes, he sits at the Jackie Gleason table.

Aside from his girth, the Panda is also famous for his generous conception of the strike zone. He makes Manny Sanguillen look like Kevin Youkilis. Giant batting instructor Carney Lansford insists that he tells Sandoval before every at-bat to swing at a strike, but Pablo’s approach remains, “See ball. Swing.” One pitch he looks like a cricket player, and the next he’s a lumberjack. To watch him at the plate is to squirm, cringe and burst with glee simultaneously, and to let the ball fall where it may.

While watching Panda hit can be emotionally vexing, watching him run is pure joy, especially when he’s heading for third. The best image in baseball is Pablo rounding second, especially when he doesn’t arrive. Early in the year, Pablo was heading for a would-be triple when he fell flat on his face. Most mortals would scramble to rise, but Sandoval knew the gig was up. He just lay there, looking, according to manager Bruce Bochy, “like a turtle on his back. Except he was on his stomach.” Some Giant players were concerned that their leading hitter might be hurt as he lay face down in the dirt, but not All-Star pitcher Matt Cain, who remarked, “Kung Fu Panda doesn’t get hurt.” To prove the point, two innings later Pablo hit his first walk-off homer, a three-run shot to beat the Nationals, 9-7. “I just want to get my pitch and drive the ball,” he said later. “I don’t want to tie the game. I want to end it.” And so he did.

These are dark times indeed, and the smart guy number crunchers who got us into this mess are trying to convince us that they know how to get us out. Yea, and Billy Beane promised cheap annual playoff teams arriving on an escalator from minor league city. Pablo Sandoval is the anti-metric. He is a rotund, free-swinging switch hitter who falls down a lot, and he is the reason, Lincecum aside, that Giant fans care again. “We should treat fans like friends,” Pablo said recently through his incessant smile. He is charming and unpolished and completely new, and even if he does not create world peace or put everybody back to work, he will continue to remind fans why sometimes all the suffering is worth it—–if only to see what Panda will do after he falls on his face.

Ken Derr lives in the Bay Area and hopes the Giants have procured a big bat by the time this Zisk comes out.

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