Panik looks to give back in return as Giants special assistant


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Ron Wotus walked down a path at the Giants minor league facility recently and flashed a wide smile as he saw a familiar face up ahead. 

"Coach Joe!" Wotus yelled. 

In his 36th year with the organization, Wotus found himself side-by-side with a former star pupil earlier this month. Joe Panik joined the Giants as a special assistant over the offseason and recently finished a 10-day stint at minor league camp, where he worked daily with some of the organization's best young infielders. 

In full uniform, Panik, now 32, still looks like he can turn two with Brandon Crawford or line a curveball into the gap. Since he retired, though, Panik's days mostly have been filled with an equally difficult task. 

Panik has been a full-time dad back in upstate New York since he quietly called it a career before the 2022 MLB season, but in recent months, he felt the game pulling him back. He's not sure what this time as a camp instructor will lead to or even what he wants it to lead to, but he knows he wants to be around the game in some respect.

"Baseball is in my blood," he said on a recent morning at Papago Park. "When you're done playing, you've still got that itch. You've still got that baseball mentality. You kind of want to give back because there are a lot of coaches, a lot of people that helped me get to where I was. For me to be on the other side, it's a little weird, a little different, but I'm enjoying that part of it."

The reunion came about after Panik reached out to former teammate Ryan Vogelsong and got a number for Kyle Haines, the Giants' senior director of player development. They had been in the organization at the same time and knew each other, but never crossed paths on the same team. Over the course of several conversations, Panik and Haines tried to figure out what life after baseball looked like. 

"I said, 'Why don't we figure out a way to get you back involved with us,' " Haines said. "We arrived at this conclusion where he helps during spring training a little bit, during the season a little bit, and we kind of both said we'll go from there."

Haines is a former Giants minor league infielder who was finishing his playing days just as Panik was about to establish himself in San Francisco. Taken in the first round in 2011, Panik hit .305 as a rookie three years later, teaming with Crawford to form one of the league's best infield duos as the Giants won a third World Series title in five years. 

His glove-flip to Crawford in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series will forever get him free drinks in San Francisco, and over the next two years, Panik made an MLB All-Star team and won a Gold Glove Award. Injuries ultimately slowed his momentum in San Francisco, and he finished his eight-year career with time with his hometown New York Mets, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Miami Marlins. 

Panik struggled to find his rhythm in Miami, and that offseason, he talked to his wife about what was to come. They had a feeling his time as a big leaguer was over.

"The game will tell you when you're done. Numbers-wise, phone calls-wise, towards the end you could get that feeling with how that offseason went, and you just knew it was time," he said. "The game pretty much tells you. I had a great run, and for me it wasn't a difficult decision."

Panik and his wife, Brittany, welcomed Mikayla Marie into the world late in 2021. When he was feeding her late at night last year, Panik occasionally would pull up the MLB app and check on the Giants.

"Especially Craw," he said smiling. "He's the last one I played with that's there. But yeah, the Giants will always have a special place in my heart."

In San Francisco, Crawford is the last one standing from that era. Madison Bumgarner still is pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Brandon Belt has followed Panik to Toronto, although he won't be getting any food recommendations. Because of COVID-19 restrictions that forced the Blue Jays to play in Buffalo, none of Panik's 83 games for them actually were played in Toronto. 

It won't be much longer before the last of those championship teams join Panik in retirement, and perhaps they'll find a similar path back to the Orange and Black. Panik officially is listed as one of three special assistants in player development, along with Dave Righetti and longtime San Jose Giants manager Lenn Sakata.

While Panik was in camp, part-owner Buster Posey stopped by to chat with minor leaguers. Pat Burrell is there every day as a roving hitting instructor and Vogelsong still is involved with the organization, although he might take a step back this season to coach his son, Ryder. Travis Ishikawa and Tommy Joseph are the hitting coaches at the lower levels, and Dan Runzler is the pitching coach in San Jose. 

While in minor league camp, Panik worked with all of the infield prospects and also spent time around the cage. During the season, he's expected to visit affiliates, with most of his time focused on Double-A Richmond since he lives in New York. 

The game has changed quite a bit since Panik last played at Oracle Park, and the organization has, too. But the Giants are eager to see what he can offer. Panik said he hoped he could help young infielders learn more about reading the game, anticipating swings and mastering the mental side of playing second base. 

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That was a large part of his success, and he came away impressed with how eager young Giants infielders were as they went through drills and asked questions. It was a short first stint as a coach, but perhaps it will end up being the start of something new for Panik and the Giants.

"He was fantastic," Haines said. "Joe is naturally a quiet guy and I think he was still trying to figure out coaching, but having Ron Wotus, Travis Ishikawa, Tommy Joseph and all those guys here, I think literally on day one it felt like he was back at home. He fit in really well and worked with all of our infielders and got around the cages some. He did a lot of work right next to Wotus and [infield coordinator] Jason Wood.

"The kids obviously still know who he is, and it was actually a pretty smooth transition from our standpoint." 

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