An opening-day dream: Pablo Sandoval has an XXXL impact on Braves

A big man with a big smile, the Braves Pablo Sandoval. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)
A big man with a big smile, the Braves Pablo Sandoval. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

Credit: Tony Gutierrez

Credit: Tony Gutierrez

Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Pablo Sandoval is fat. Let’s get that out of the way up front. There is no sugarcoating it, even if sugarcoating may be part of the issue. Believe me, I know fat.

You don’t get called “Panda” for your washboard abs. The question is what to do with this obvious condition now that he is hitting 1.000, slugging 4.000 and has a monopoly on all the Braves’ home runs and RBIs one game into the season?

Do we have fun with it, and begin the process of bestowing upon him the sort of cult-figure status that he enjoyed as a two-time All-Star and former World Series MVP with San Francisco? Roll with it, so to speak? But at the same time, we know all the health issues that come wrapped in obesity and how Sandoval’s weight sabotaged his career after signing a big deal in Boston. A good fat joke just doesn’t seem so funny anymore.

Maybe we’ll give him a few more at-bats, and then decide.

In simpler times, back when mirrors just came with our own imperfect reflection rather than some harping virtual physical trainer, we might laugh and simply enjoy the incongruity of the overweight athlete. We might celebrate him as one of our own.

Remember Terry Forster?

There’ll never be another Brave who was able to turn suet into schtick quite like Forster. He embraced his weight, even if he couldn’t quite get both arms around it.

It began one late night in 1985 after TV host David Letterman happened to catch a Braves game and spy the doughy Forster work in relief. Part of his monologue was then devoted to this accomplished pitcher in Atlanta who Letterman claimed was “the fattest man in professional sports,” as well as “a fat tub of goo.” That surely wouldn’t fly in these sensitive times.

At first Forster stewed, but then he turned insult into opportunity. He went on Letterman’s show and played it all for laughs. He strode onto the stage eating what he called a Letterman Sandwich – “lots of tongue.” He even fixed tacos for his tormentor.

Forster was a very good ballplayer – he had a 16-year career, three of those with the Braves, that featured a lifetime 3.23 ERA, 127 saves and a .397 batting average in 78 at-bats. And so was/is Sandoval. This gives both at least the benefit of the last laugh.

Braves opening day in Philadelphia on Thursday was a mixed bag for those of us at war with our weight. Meaning the sweaty, gravy-stained majority of America.

On one hand, there was Sandoval, a great story of perseverance and adaptation who played his way onto the Braves this spring as a bench player. He put all of his 5-foot-10, 268-pound frame – that’s how the Braves have him listed – into an unfortunate 0-2 fastball. His long, two-run pinch-hit homer tied the score and stood as the Braves’ only runs of the day. In that moment, all questions about the Braves’ power off the bench faded. If briefly.

That was a victory for everyone who puts his pants on one leg at a time – and then can’t fasten them.

Yet, on the other, there was this rather round Phillies fan sitting behind home plate who thought it would be a fun idea to go without his shirt on a cold, windy day. The TV camera couldn’t avoid him while it did him no favors. He was a discredit to over-eaters everywhere. It really made the viewer long for the cardboard cutouts of 2020. Two-dimensional figures are so much smarter than this guy.

Fat may be rarer in sport than has it ever has been. More athletes are eating right and taking care of the instrument of wealth. Even golfers are keeping their shape. It makes Sandoval all the more an obvious curiosity.

The history of the fat Brave is not extensive. There’s Forster, of course, who fills a special niche in team lore. Others are more passersby. Like Bartolo Colon, a Brave for a second in 2017, going 2-8 here on his 21-year magical, largely mirthful major league tour. Or Luiz Gohara, another pitcher of that time whose conditioning issues dearly cost him.

It seems in general – with those from Sandoval to William “Fridge” Perry to Craig Stadler – that when the extra-large athlete is going well, all the world loves him. We treat these portly athletic outliers as brothers in the same buffet line.

But when performance begins to lag, as it most assuredly must, as it did with Sandoval in Boston, the public can turn ugly.

Here’s wishing Sandoval one more run as the toast – and the bacon and the hash browns – of the town. May the kind of Panda-monium that once gripped San Francisco find a new home in Atlanta. Wouldn’t that be fun? And, yes, as Terry Forster proved decades ago, it’s OK to have a little fun.

Here is that most uncommon case in baseball where hitting your weight can get a player close to beloved.

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