Game 1 of the 2012 World Series was not only a big night for Pablo Sandoval but for player nicknames as well. The roly-poly San Francisco Giants third baseman, whose nickname is Kung Fu Panda, became the first player in history to homer in his first three at-bats in a World Series game, propelling the Giants to a 8-3 win over the Detroit Tigers.
The moniker of the lovable Venezuelan, whose three-homer game is matched only in Series play by Babe Ruth (twice), Reggie Jackson, and Albert Pujols, has helped to engrave Sandoval's persona into San Francisco's baseball lore as much as the nicknames of the four former Giants who took the field Wednesday night. Participating in ceremonial first-pitch duties were Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, and Gaylord Perry.
As players, they had memorable nicknames of their own. Mays was known as "The Say Hey Kid," stemming from his tendency to greet people with the words "say hey." Cepeda, who hails from Puerto Rico, answered to "Cha Cha." McCovey, who was honored by having the bay waters beyond AT&T Park's right-field bleachers named McCovey Cove, was called "Stretch" for his reaches for throws at first base. Perry, who spent the first 10 years of his 22 years in the big leagues with the Giants, gained his "Ancient Mariner" nickname playing for Seattle late in his career ( "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is a famous British poem).
As for how Sandoval came to be called the Kung Fu Panda, well, that was the inspiration of his Giants teammate Barry Zito, who several years ago made the connection with the cuddly hero of a 2008 DreamWorks computer-animated action comedy of the same name "Kung Fu Panda."
According to Sandoval's website, "On September 19, 2008, he received the nickname "Kung Fu Panda" from teammate Barry Zito, after a play on where Sandoval scored a run against the Dodgers by jumping over the tag of catcher Danny Ardoin."
Zito, who has resurrected his career, was the winning pitcher in Game 1, so it was fitting that he's played a role in popularizing his 240-lb. teammate, who also has achieved a personal comeback. When San Francisco won the 2010 World Series over Texas, the slumping Sandoval had ridden the pine, sitting on the bench for four of the five games.
Early in 2011, the Giants actually publicized their "Operation Panda," an effort to get Sandoval into better shape in the off season. It worked. Sandoval shed more than 30 pounds, and his playing improved.
Now, however, maybe it's time for a new nickname. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ann Killion has suggested "Señor Octubre," a play on Reggie Jackson's reputation as "Mr. October," for his World Series clouts for the Yankees in the late 1970s.
The icing on the cake? Well, Sandoval hit the first two of his Game 1 homers off Detroit ace Justin Verlander (the third came off reliever Al Albuquerque). For a team that finished with fewer home runs than any team in the majors this season (103), the Panda's power surge was a most welcome aberration.