Not-so-heavy hitter

The Giants third baseman is using a vision board to set his career goals. Grant Cornett for ESPN The Magazine

Pablo Sandoval is hungry. It's dinner time in early January, and the San Francisco Giants third baseman is in his Scottsdale, Ariz., apartment, standing in front of an open refrigerator, wearily considering his options: chicken, salad ... or chicken salad. He shrugs and picks out a Styrofoam takeout box stuffed with bird breast and iceberg lettuce, no dressing, prepared for him by the men who have been putting his body through hell for the past two months.

His apartment -- a dorm-size, one-bedroom rental in a massive, sterile complex across the street from an even more massive and sterile shopping center -- is as barren as his refrigerator. A laptop, open to the 24-year-old Sandoval's Facebook page, perches on a small table near the door, sharing space with two cans of half-empty chewing tobacco and a toothbrush. Splayed across the living room floor between the table and the door are two dozen baseball bats, still in their plastic wraps, and a well-worn orange and black glove with his name stitched in cursive down the thumb. A television, couch and coffee table are the only other furnishings in the room, which doesn't exactly jibe with the image of a big-time professional athlete. But the spartan existence more appropriately reflects the insides of a man coming off a year where his play tanked, his personal life fell apart and much of his neighborhood burned down.

A bobblehead doll, also named Pablo Sandoval, stands alone on the coffee table. The two Pablos are not getting along right now. "His butt is too big and the belly's hanging down and the biceps need to go up," Sandoval says as he inspects the souvenir, holding it up to the light. "He doesn't look like me anymore." Indeed, he does not.

It isn't easy, under any circumstances, to tell your best friend that he's fat. And it is especially difficult when the weight may have something do with why your pal is suddenly struggling to hit a baseball as hard as he did 12 months ago, and why he's getting booed by the same fans who own that pudgy bobblehead. But after a grueling stretch of games last summer, in which Sandoval looked particularly lost in the box, Giants centerfielder Andres Torres swallowed hard, looked Sandoval square in the eye and told him the truth.

"I said, 'Man, we can talk about everything and not just baseball, right?' " Torres recalls. " 'You know I love you, so I've got to be honest: You've got to do something about your body. You gotta get it under control, because you're better than this.' "

It wasn't as if Sandoval didn't know he was big. You can't carry almost 280 pounds on a 5'11" frame and feel like Juan Pierre. But it took perspective and a big dip in output to open his eyes. In his first full major league season in 2009, he hit .330 with 25 home runs and 90 RBIs, becoming a fan favorite whose lovable cuddliness earned him the nickname Kung Fu Panda. But when his batting average plunged last summer, and he went nearly two months without a dinger, he learned a valuable lesson: You're a panda bear when you hit, and you're just another fat baseball player when you don't. In the span of a year, the happy-go-lucky Venezuelan went from finishing seventh in NL MVP voting to watching from the bench as the Giants won the World Series. (He hit just .268 on the season, with 13 homers and 63 RBIs.) "I had a bad year," Sandoval says, shaking his head. "I was terrible. I know that. It hurt."

Sandoval is a religious man. But even greater than his fear of God is his fear of Fresno. And that's exactly where Giants GM Brian Sabean said Panda would be sent if he showed up to spring training out of shape. Sandoval says he doesn't follow his own press, but a friend called him after seeing Sabean's comment in an MLB.com story last November. "Triple-A, man," Sandoval says now. "Right there was the moment it hit me. I did not want to go to Fresno, so I really better do something."

That same week, he signed on to work with Triple Threat Performance, in Tempe, Ariz., the guys who have him living on the Hollywood-actress diet of poultry and vegetables. From Nov. 16 until Valentine's Day, they made him run and squat and lunge and puke. They drew his blood to check for hormone imbalances, handed him fists full of vitamins to swallow every day and sat him in a contraption known as the Bod Pod to learn where his fat liked to congregate. They also helped him acquire a taste for pumping iron. Incredibly, Sandoval admits he had never picked up a weight until this winter, and that he was something of a Houdini when it came to sneaking out of strength training. "We're talking about a guy who is so genetically gifted it's scary," says Triple Threat's Ethan Banning, who oversaw Sandoval's off-season workouts and will continue to plot his weekly strength and conditioning programs with the Giants training staff this season. "To be able to hit the way he did in 2009 without being in shape? Amazing."

Even more incredible to Sandoval himself is the willpower that his fear of failure has given him to banish his favorite (read: unhealthy) foods. He swears he can see his arepa/ice cream/corn bread/mayonnaise days in the rearview mirror, and that he has no desire to pull a U-turn. "No mas carbohidratos," he says, patting his shrinking tummy as a grin streaks across his face. When he reported to camp on Feb. 18 and stepped on the scale, it read 239, about a 40-pound drop from his heaviest days last summer. His body fat was down from 30 percent to 19 percent.

Impressed with Panda's transformation, new teammate Miguel Tejada encouraged him to think like a different animal -- a racehorse in a mask. Sandoval makes two circles around his eyes with his hands to help explain the analogy. "This way, they can't look from side to side," he says. "And they can't look back, only forward."

But Sandoval recognized that if he truly wanted to move forward, he also needed to shed some emotional baggage. So he took the off-season to look inward. He picked up the 2006 best-selling self-help book The Secret, and even cobbled together a vision board (a re-creation of which opened this article) to help bring his goals into focus. "Nice career" is one such aspiration, tacked onto the board next to pictures of current and former players he admires, including Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, countrymen Omar Vizquel and Carlos Gonzalez, and his own personal idol, Tony Gwynn. To Sandoval, a nice career would be hitting .330 every year, with 30 home runs, 100 RBI, 10 bunt singles, 20 stolen bases and a Gold Glove. (That stuff is on the vision board too.)

"He's so serious and focused right now, it's almost weird," says Torres, whom Sandoval thanked after the season for caring enough about him to say something about his physique. "He'll always have fun, but it's so good to see him come back. He's such a great person, and he's been through so much that people don't even know about."

The explosion is easier to talk about now. But last September, when a natural gas pipeline blew up in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno, where Sandoval was renting, it threatened to derail his progress. The giant fireball, which ignited just down the block, ripped through the neighborhood. Pablo's mother, Amelia, was safely evacuated from his house, but the accident killed eight people and started blazes that destroyed more than 50 homes. Sandoval and the Giants were on the road in the middle of a crucial 10-game stretch against division rivals at the time. He was a wreck.

Even more unsettling was the implosion of Sandoval's personal life. When he talks about it, he bookends his sentences with deep exhales, like a guy who walked away from a car that flipped off a cliff. "Some things happen for a reason," he says, fiddling with the bottom of his shirt as he sits in the Giants' clubhouse, after an early-morning workout before spring practice. "I couldn't do nothing to fix it, so I made the decision to get out quick."

He's talking about his two-year marriage to the mother of his 3-year-old daughter. During his struggles last season, Sandoval wouldn't discuss his divorce with the press, wouldn't admit that having to go back to Venezuela to attend custody hearings had any effect on his play. But as he speaks about it now, it's clear the emotional weight he carried in his head and in his lungs and in his throat was much heavier than the extra pounds that kept creeping onto his midsection. "It was horrible, the worst time of my life," he says. "You try to
focus on baseball, but concentrating is impossible. I guess I'm an emotional person." He sighs and scratches the top of his head. "The good news is it's over, it's behind me, and we're okay. We're friends now." He pauses, looks down and says softly to himself, "I can breathe."

His daughter, Yoleadny, is his world. Pablo's face lights up as he announces that she's coming to live with him and Amelia in a new place near the ballpark this season, as she did two years ago, when he hit like Gwynn. "She is crazy smart," Sandoval says of his little girl. "She speaks Spanish and English, and she just..." His voice trails off. "She's the most important person in my life. Having her with me is going to make all the difference."

Having the crowd's love again would be nice too. When Sandoval tweets to his 15,000-plus Twitter followers, he calls them friends, not fans. One kid asked him for life advice, and the player replied, "Respect your mom even if you think you're the big guy." When a father wondered how to handle his 15-year-old son's dream to make it to the major leagues, Sandoval responded, "Si tu hijo disfruta al maximo estar en un campo de beis tranquilo el solito va dar el todo por el todo, apoyalo siempre." Translation: "If your son really loves being on a quiet baseball field, relax. He'll push himself to go the extra mile. Always support him."

On the fourth day of spring training, Giants manager Bruce Bochy sits behind the desk in his office, beneath the first base stands in Scottsdale, and talks about the difference he's already seen in Sandoval. "Obviously, he's worked hard to get into shape," Bochy says. "He's showing better range at third and more confidence at the plate. His swing is easier, and he's consistently hitting the ball harder." An hour earlier during live batting practice, Sandoval pulled the first pitch he saw from Ramon Ramirez 400 feet, beyond the rightfield bleachers and into the margarita-soaked Charro Lodge. He drove the fifth pitch through a cloud and over the centerfield fence, seemingly with his hands alone, like Manny Ramirez in his heyday.

When Sandoval returns to his locker, a Styrofoam takeout box with "Pablo" written on it is waiting for him on his chair. More chicken salad. He stands at his locker, the one right below the Giants' 2010 World Series banner, and surveys the room. "I feel strength I didn't know was there," he says, gripping a new bat in his hands. "New year, new me."

And he means it. Sandoval knows that guys show up to camp every year announcing they are in the best shape of their lives -- and that many of them still struggle. He knows some people think 2009 was a fluke. He knows if he falters, teammate Mark DeRosa could take his starting job. And he knows Fresno is just three hours away from San Francisco.

He wants another chance. He wants another bobblehead.

Molly Knight is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.