Pablo Sandoval

If this is it for Panda, thanks are due for so many Giants memories

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Programming note: Giants fans can watchPablo Sandoval's potential final game in the orange and black at 5 p.m. PT Tuesday on NBC Sports Bay Area and streaming on the NBC Sports app.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The email from the Giants hit inboxes on Saturday morning, and it conveyed a pretty clear message. The title was "Celebrate Pablo Sandoval this Tuesday," and the body of the email listed some of the third baseman's accomplishments before saying he was returning to Oracle Park "for what could be his final game in a Giants uniform."

While Sandoval said he hoped to compete for a job when he surprisingly arrived at Scottsdale Stadium last month, this has always been by far the likeliest outcome. A year after Sergio Romo's emotional final appearance during the Bay Bridge series, Sandoval is poised for his own special night.

The Giants plan to celebrate the Panda with an appearance that likely will be his final one after 21 years in professional baseball. It's also one that seemed very unlikely a decade ago. 

After a third title in orange and black, Sandoval bolted for Boston on a five-year, $95 million deal. The Giants had offered him about $85 million that spring, and after Sandoval agreed to terms with the Red Sox, they went out of their way to let local reporters know that they might have exceeded the deal he got in Boston had he wanted to stay. It was clear back then that both sides needed a break.

"It took me a long time to be sure that I was making the right decision," Sandoval said when he left in 2014. "I know that I had a great career in San Francisco, but I'm going to have a new one here with new challenges."

Those challenges ended up being far greater than Sandoval could have expected. He played just 161 games for the Red Sox during a three-year run that couldn't have gone much worse and ended with him getting DFA'd midseason in 2017. 

A few weeks later, Sandoval found himself back in San Francisco, and while his first stint as a Giant was far more successful than the second one, it's those four additional years that made tonight's ceremony possible. Sandoval has always been beloved by most Giants fans, but there were hurt feelings on both sides when he departed in 2014. None of that exists today.

It was no surprise that Bruce Bochy, a man he considers a father figure, welcomed him back with open arms in 2017. But Sandoval proved to be so effective as a part-time bat and spark of energy for the clubhouse that Farhan Zaidi and Gabe Kapler brought him back in 2020 even though he was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. 

Kapler is now gone, and Zaidi has just about completely overhauled every part of the organization and has been ruthless with his roster decisions at times, but he was happy to invite Sandoval back for one more run after an offseason of lobbying. 

"We had to sign Pablo because the workout videos he was sending me were taking up all the space on my phone," he joked after the deal came together. 

True to form, Sandoval, now 37, might have been the most energetic player in the clubhouse for the past month. But he got just 25 at-bats in Cactus League games, picking up five singles and striking out 13 times. 

The Giants never intended to have him on their Opening Day roster, and if there was even a slim crack in the door, it slammed shut when Matt Chapman was signed to be the everyday third baseman. Sandoval's quiet spring probably won't lead any of the 29 other organizations to come calling, and he has been coy about whether he would accept an assignment in the minor leagues.

If Tuesday night's appearance is it, the exhibition game will cap a lengthy career that ultimately was productive, but also often left the Giants wanting more. 

Sandoval has played 1,380 games in the big leagues, 1,149 of them with the Giants. A switch-hitter with a preternatural ability to barrel the baseball no matter where it might be thrown, he's sitting on a .278 career batting average, and he's at .285 with the Giants, with an OPS approaching .800. 

Since the Giants moved West, 21 position players have appeared in at least 1,000 games for the franchise, and just five have a higher average than Sandoval. When you're behind only Barry Bonds, Orlando Cepeda, Willie Mays, Buster Posey and Will Clark on a list, you're in some pretty strong company. 

Sandoval was infamously benched during San Francisco's 2010 World Series run, and there were other times when Bochy had to send a message, but he has plenty of highlights on the resume. He is a two-time All-Star who set a franchise record with 24 hits in the 2012 postseason. He holds the Giants record for hits in a season by a switch-hitter. 

And, of course, he provided three images that this fan base might never forget. 

Sandoval became just the fourth player to hit three home runs in a World Series game, turning Justin Verlander into a GIF and getting the Giants off to such a raucous start in the 2012 World Series that they ended up sweeping the heavily-favored Detroit Tigers. Two years later, it was Sandoval who caught and squeezed a pop-up from fellow Venezuelan Salvador Perez, clinching a third title in San Francisco's unforgettable Game 7 win over the Kansas City Royals. 

With his ability to expand the zone and connect on elite pitches, Sandoval was made for the bright lights of the postseason, but he didn't appear in another October game for the Giants after settling under that final out in 2014. Instead, the highlight of his second and third stints with the Giants came on the mound.

Despite plenty of pleas from [Brandon Craford and Brandon Belt], Bochy had never put a Giants position player on the mound -- until he found himself on the wrong end of a blowout in the first game of a 2018 doubleheader against the Dodgers. To wipe the sour taste away before game two -- and save an overworked bullpen -- he turned to Sandoval, who responded with an entertaining and efficient 1-2-3 inning.

Sandoval returned to the mound the next season and had another scoreless frame. Assuming this is it for him, he'll retire with that .278 career batting average, three rings ... and a 0.00 ERA. It's the perfect stat line for a man who loves the game so much that he returned at the age of 37 for one more spring shot. That attitude was summed up after Sandoval walked off the mound for the first time six years ago. 

“Just have fun,” he said that day. “I let the guys know, no matter what the situation, have fun."

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