FORT MYERS, Fla. — He ain’t heavy, he’s your third baseman.
Enough with Panda fat jokes. Pablo Sandoval is what he is. He is a 28-year-old switch-hitter who can rake. He can turn on the high fastball, something nobody does anymore. He can hit the ball that’s pitched away. He can hit tape-measure shots when batting from the left side. He can hit when it matters most. He’s also a cat-like defender, surprisingly nimble at the hot corner. Think Wilfork with a Wilson mitt on his left hand.
There’s been a lot of fat talk around Camp Red Sox since intrepid Steve Silva of Boston.com snapped a photo of Panda standing around the infield, looking a little like Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now.’’
Sandoval was caught in a classic Dunlap pose. You know the joke. His belly done lapped his belt. Somehow, the publication of this photo triggered a Fat Tuesday festivus of ridicule and repudiation. It was talk show fodder back home in Boston for a few days and even David Letterman weighed in with a Top 10 list of things you don’t want to hear from your $95 million baseball player. Publicly, Sandoval put on a happy face. He posed for a gut-protruding photo with teammates Hanley Ramirez and Joe Kelly. They called it the Panda Pose and sent it out on Twitter.
But Sox insiders claimed Sandoval was hurt. Changed. Burned.
In the Sox’ JetBlue clubhouse Saturday, Panda spotted Silva and invited the reporter to come work out with him. Somehow, this got interpreted as Panda challenging Silva to a footrace or perhaps a belly bump. All pretty silly. But let’s remember that this is spring training, ever the domain of the sensational non-story. It was during Winter Haven spring training in the 1980s that Oil Can Boyd was issued a sheriff’s summons for overdue videos, which prompted the local paper to publish the titles of the videos, all of which turned out to be pornos. This became known as The Can’s Film Festival and encapsulates the essence of the phony spring training controversy. Anybody remember Velvet Elvis or Wade Boggs willing himself invisible?
Which brings us back to the Kung Fu Panda, the corpulent captain of Team Tundra (vast waist land). In Red Sox lore, Sandoval is a worthy successor to Babe Ruth, Mo Vaughn, and Rich Garces.
And we need to leave him alone about it. Nothing to see here, even if Sandoval blocks out the abundant sunshine of Southwest Florida. Let me repeat what I wrote from the World Series in October when I practically begged my friends John, Tom, and Larry to sign the Panda: “I promise never to rip Sandoval for being out of shape or going on the disabled list.’’
Sox fans need to accept this guy. In Belichickspeak, he is what he is. He’s going to tip the scales somewhere around 270 and he’s going to hit. Put on your Panda head and watch him spray the ball to all fields. Sandoval has not gained weight since he wrecked the Nationals, Cardinals, and Royals last fall.
“Not concerned about his weight,’’ Sox manager John Farrell said. “His body type hasn’t changed since signing with us. His body works for him. He’s here, he’s ours. We’re extremely happy that he is.’’
Or as Earl Weaver used to say about big first baseman Boog Powell, “He don’t look fat to me when he’s running around the bases after hitting those homers.’’
Like age, weight is just a number. There’s so much more to know about Sandoval. He is a tremendous bad-ball hitter (“I’m OK with every pitch”) who needs to get better from the right side. Sandoval hit .317 from the left side last year, but only .199 from the right side. He is ambidextrous and says he could be an emergency catcher. He is a legend in his native Venezuela. He has a Chiclet smile and a small scar near his left eye — the result of an encounter with a family Doberman when he was only 1. He never has batted in Fenway Park.
“Every park is good for me,’’ he said with a smile. “I go everywhere where the pitch is.’’
He seems a little burned by the noise from the north last week, but he pledges that it’s not going to eat at him. “I let them talk,’’ Sandoval said with a smile. “I let you guys talk. Say whatever you want to do. At the end of the day, I’m going to be doing hard work.’’
Take a load off, Pablo.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.