A native of Puerto Cabello, Carabobo, Venezuela, Pablo Sandoval was signed by the Giants in 2003 and began his professional career the following season in the Arizona Rookie League at the age of 18. He has since gone on to become one of the best hitters in the National League, but first “The Kung Fu Panda” — is there a better nickname in sports? — had to learn a new language and a new culture. Now a third baseman after beginning his career as a catcher, Sandoval has hit .320/.371/.512 since breaking into the big leagues in 2008.
David Laurila: What was it like coming to the United States?
Pablo Sandoval: For me, it was exciting being able to come here to play baseball — professional baseball. I got the opportunity to get to the big leagues, but when I got here I didn’t even talk English. I had to learn so bad, because I was catching. In rookie ball, I didn’t even know how to communicate with the pitchers, but the team put together a teacher for the rookie guys, at the rookie level, and I learned a little bit — the situation of the game. That was where I learned.
DL: How long did it take for you to learn English?
PS: Learning English was not so bad, because I wanted to learn so bad. I just wanted to be speaking English a little bit more, with all the other guys, because my primary language is Spanish, you know. But I wanted to learn English because of the position I was playing; I had to be talking with the pitchers. We got a teacher, almost every day, two hours a day, and with a teacher, you learn so many things.
DL: How did you communicate with the pitchers before you learned English?
PS: In games, I would call over the second baseman, because he was here for more years. He was three years in the United States so he knew more English than me. I would call him over and say, "I just want to throw this pitch and what do you think?" That was the way I would communicate with the pitchers. But after a few months, I could talk more with them.
DL: Which was more difficult to learn, a new language or a new culture?
PS: Learning the language. The life is way different, but you have to adapt to the life here. I had to learn, but it is very easy to live here. Everybody lives free, you know; you can do whatever you want to do. Venezuela is way different.
DL: Was food an issue?
PS: Yeah, everything is changing when you come from a Latin country — rice and beans, chicken, fish. Here, in the minor leagues, you eat at McDonalds and Burger King, and it’s tough. When you come to a new country, the first year is tough, because you don’t speak too much English and you don’t know how to order food.
DL: When you were in rookie ball, did the Latin players hang out on one side of the clubhouse and the American players on the other?
PS: No, no. This team doesn’t do that, because they want the Latin guys to learn English more. They put one Latin guy with one American guy so you can learn more English. And a couple of American guys learned Spanish — a couple of guys, when I was in rookie ball, wanted to learn Spanish. There were many Latin guys on the team and they wanted to communicate. It is good if you can communicate in both.
DL: There was once a player named Moe Berg, of whom it was said, “He can speak seven languages but he can’t hit in any of them.” Can you hit in more than one language?
PS: Ha, ha. Yes, I think so. I think I can hit in any language.