Giants notes: Pablo Sandoval is at camp ‘to fight for a spot’

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Pablo Sandoval exhibited a lightness of being last August when he returned to San Francisco for clubhouse manager Mike Murphy’s Wall of Fame ceremony. Sandoval looked noticeably lighter in his clothes, too. He bounded through the clubhouse and greeted young players like Luis Matos and Marco Luciano.

“I told them, `’I’ll be back next year,’” Sandoval said on Monday. “They thought I was joking, but I was serious.”

Serious as a hungry panda in a bamboo thicket.

The Giants held their first full-squad workout on Monday, and even though it’d been 48 hours since NBC Sports Bay Area reported the news that Sandoval would be in camp as a non-roster invitee, it still required a triple take to absorb the sight of him in his No. 48 uniform for the first time in more than three years, making throws on the run from third base, taking hacks in the cage, and making merry in between stations.

Sandoval, 37, instantly became the oldest player in camp. He’s batting exclusively left-handed now. His last competitive at-bat came in a two-game showcase series for an upstart league in Dubai. He hasn’t had a big-league at-bat since 2021. There is absolutely no rational reason to believe that this will be the start of a third stint with the Giants when they set their opening-day roster five weeks from now. Every impulse tells you that Sandoval is here for the positive vibes, for the entertainment value, for the mentorship of younger players, for the connective tissue that the Giants had lost to their championship era — the one that ended in 2014 when the final out of Game 7 of the World Series settled into Sandoval’s glove and he fell backward in ecstasy into the grass in foul territory that night in Kansas City.

But when reporters encircled him at his locker, the one decorated with a custom nameplate that included a grinning cartoon Kung Fu Panda, in a space wedged between Jorge Soler and Thairo Estrada, Sandoval spoke for barely a minute before making one thing as clear as the diamond studs in both his ears.

“I’m not gonna retire, guys,” Sandoval said. “I’m just telling you. I came … to fight for a spot.”

Sandoval’s arrival dovetailed with the tone-setting speech that manager Bob Melvin delivered before the Giants took the field: Everyone in this clubhouse is here because they have an opportunity to contribute to this team, if not necessarily from the outset. It’s going to take everyone for this group to achieve its goals. This is a new coaching staff, a new set of eyes, and an open casting call to make an impression.

It’s not only the young guys who are hoping to open eyes.

“You know what? He’s had a big impact on this team over the years,” Melvin said of Sandoval. “He’s got an infectious personality. He’s got experience. He’s motivated. I think there’s a lot that can rub off on some of our younger guys, too.

“He doesn’t want to hear anything about what his chances are. He’s going to go out there and play and he’s going to try to force our hand.”

Sandoval, who played parts of the past two years in Mexico and in the Venezuelan Winter League, assumed he was training for one last hurrah last August when he began working out in preparation for an opportunity with Baseball United, an upstart league that hopes to expand the game to the Middle East, Pakistan and India. His 7-year-old son, Liam, would tag along as Sandoval took batting practice.

“And he said, ‘Dad, you hit the ball to the moon. Why don’t you keep playing?’” Sandoval said. “When I came back, I took it more seriously.”

It might have helped that Sandoval swung the bat well in the two-game showcase in Dubai while wearing a neon teal Abu Dhabi Falcons jersey. He became the first player to hit a six-run home run — an oddity that was possible under unique rules that include the use of a “Moneyball” pitch. When Sandoval returned home to South Florida, he didn’t let up. Neither did his mobile phone plan, apparently.

Asked why Sandoval was in camp, Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi responded with a text jest: “We had to sign Pablo because the workout videos he was sending me were taking up all the space on my phone.”

The more Zaidi thought about it, the more a familiar phrase began to occupy his mind: Why the heck not? It turned into a positive experience last spring when he signed right-hander and core World Series reliever Sergio Romo to a non-roster contract so he could ramp up for a ceremonial retirement appearance in the club’s final exhibition game at Oracle Park. Teams have invited country music star Garth Brooks as a non-roster player. Michael Jordan once hit a ducksnort RBI single at Wrigley Field in an exhibition game for the Chicago White Sox.

And the Giants are eager to put some mental distance between themselves and last year’s team that finished the season with a 25-42 record to plummet from contention and appeared so lifeless and disconnected while playing games that mattered in September that it cost manager Gabe Kapler his job.

Melvin, who remembered what it was like to have Sandoval’s energy in the clubhouse when they were together for the 2012 All-Star Game, was on board.

“He always could hit and he’s one of those players you always noticed,” Melvin said. “He plays the game with a certain passion that very few do.”

Sandoval acknowledged that he spammed Zaidi and hitting coach Justin Viele with a steady stream of workout videos. He said he’s in the best shape he’s ever been in. Asked his weight, he said, “Lighter than I used to be.”

Sandoval will get work at both corner infield spots. The Giants appear set at both positions with J.D. Davis at third and a first base tandem of Wilmer Flores and LaMonte Wade, Jr. With the signing of Soler to serve as a regular designated hitter, they’ll be challenged as it stands to get something resembling everyday work for Flores, who was their top offensive contributor last season. There might be a sliver of light for Sandoval to fit on the roster as a left-handed bench bat, but it’s anyone’s guess what he’ll look like against live pitching.

Sandoval left no doubt, though: This isn’t his last hurrah in uniform. He wouldn’t rule out reporting to Triple-A Sacramento if he doesn’t crack the roster.

“I’ll do … I want to play baseball,” he said. “This is an inspiration for me. It’s a blessed time.”

The blessings began before the minor-league contract came to fruition. When the Giants traded Ross Stripling to Oakland earlier this month, it freed up No. 48.

Live batting practice highlights full-squad workouts

The Giants wasted no time setting up live batting practice as part of the first full-squad workout and whoever arranged the workout groups had a sense of humor: Jorge Soler was the first batter that stood in against Logan Webb. Soler, as hitters often do on the first day, tracked pitches without swinging.

Other hitters were a little more eager to test their timing, including center fielder Jung Hoo Lee, who faced Sean Hjelle. The 6-foot-11 right-hander had turned toward the screen to get a new ball when Lee stepped into the box and received a welcoming cheer from the smattering of fans.

“I had my back turned and heard the clapping and thought, ‘That’s not for me,’” Hjelle said. “Then I turn around and see Jung Hoo up there and it’s, ‘OK, that makes sense.’”

On the first swing Lee took, he grazed a fastball off the end of the bat and shattered it.

“I will say it was pretty cool to break his bat,” said Hjelle, who later asked Lee if he could keep it as a souvenir.

Yastrzemski and Slater to be slow-played

The Giants will play it slow with two veteran outfielders early in camp. Austin Slater is fully recovered from offseason elbow surgery but won’t appear in games at the outset. Mike Yastrzemski also will be on a deliberate pace after he developed a left shoulder impingement while throwing in December. Yastrzemski, who is hitting without restriction and playing catch out to 90 feet, said he feels fine but understands the cautious approach.

As a result, there should be plenty of opportunities for younger outfielders including Tyler Fitzgerald, who is also working at both middle infield spots, as well as Wade Meckler and Matos.

With apologies to Sandoval, Matos might win the “best shape of his life” award among players in camp. Zaidi heaped praise on the promising 22-year-old for the aptitude he’s shown over the past year.

“Really excited about the work that Luis did this offseason,” Zaidi said. “Last spring, we talked with him about controlling the zone and he just went out and did it. And this offseason, we kind of challenged him on the physicality aspect and he’s done it. So it’s really impressive how he’s taking these challenges.”

Hjelle had a moment with Matos in live BP as well. He took a one-hop scorcher off his foot.

“That’s me being silly and trying to heat check myself and throw an 0-2 fastball to a guy with quick hands who has elite bat-to-ball skills,” Hjelle said. “It probably wasn’t the best choice I’ve made in my life.”

(Photo of Sandoval taking grounders in camp on Monday: Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

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