A Giants career that began with such joy in 2008, Pablo Sandoval’s boyish happiness infecting a team and sport that could use some of it, is ending too soon with both sadness and gratitude.
It is expected that Sandoval would like to continue playing, but it likely will not happen again with the Giants, who released him Thursday during a stretch run as they seek every advantage they can get. Sandoval was not providing one, which led to a hard conversation.
“Such an incredible contributor to the organization, his teammates, the coaching staff, everybody in the organization and everybody in the city of San Francisco,” Gabe Kapler said of the Kung Fu Panda, whose dugout and clubhouse smile is about as memorable as his big-game hits. “It was very difficult to deliver that news, very difficult for Pablo to receive it.
“He was a pro and a gentleman every step of the way. Definitely a loss.”
Kapler remembered back to his own playing days when he was on the other side of the discussion.
“Those are very painful conversations,” he said over Zoom, “so I have a lot of empathy for what Pablo was dealing with.”
The 34-year-old’s third run with the Giants lasted 33 games, in which he batted .220 with one homer and did not walk enough for the Giants to justify the roster spot. They added Justin Smoak, also a switch-hitting first baseman who is better against righties, to replace him. Kapler acknowledged that Smoak’s reputation as a good teammate was part of the equation because Sandoval is far harder to replace in the clubhouse.
Even during a season played alongside a pandemic, in which players are forced to be separated from one another, clubhouse leadership “matters a lot,” Kapler said. The Giants have let go of both Sandoval and his good pal, Hunter Pence, over the past few weeks, batting averages that can be improved but mentorships that can’t be replicated.
“Pablo was very influential in the cage and in the clubhouse, on the field, in batting practice,” Kapler said before his Giants began a four-game set in San Diego. “One of the things that we’ve come to recognize is, masks on or off, we still have a similar vibe in the cage, still a similar vibe around the tunnel during batting practice, in conversations in the outfield. Veteran presences are influential, they’re important even in a time of COVID, even in a strange and different time like 2020.”
The Giants signed him as a free agent this offseason after a surprisingly successful second stint with the team, Sandoval emerging as a key bat off the bench for the last season of Bruce Bochy, his baseball father. He had returned to San Francisco in 2017 after leaving following the 2014 World Series, a disastrous stint with the Red Sox sandwiched between them.
He won three World Series with the Giants and had a significant hand in each, owning a .426/.460/.702 slashline in 12 World Series games. His hand also caught the last out of the ’14 championship, collapsing to the grass in celebration.
Mike Yastrzemski and Mauricio Dubon are two of the many who have shouted out his leadership and guidance. The Giants did not want to bring in Smoak until they heard the intangibles he could offer, which became especially important “when there’s a possibility that you’re going to lose a beloved figure and a great human being like Pablo Sandoval,” Kapler said.