By Ann Killion
June 11, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO -- For a mere $20 this weekend at AT&T Park you could have bought a furry panda hat -- either in classic white neon orange -- to celebrate the return of the San Francisco Giants erstwhile slugger Pablo Sandoval to the lineup.

The hats are an homage to the Giants cartoon character of a third baseman, nicknamed for the animated "Kung Fu Panda." Sandoval returned Saturday after spending five weeks on the disabled list following surgery for a fractured hamate bone in his left hand.

The fact that Sandoval was investigated for alleged sexual assault during his absence didn't prevent many paying Giants customers from plopping Panda hats on their children. Or wildly cheering the return of arguably the Giants' best offensive threat.

Whatever happened in the early morning hours of June 1 in Santa Cruz County remains under investigation. According to reports, an unidentified woman called police at 4:25 a.m. and named Sandoval as a suspect in a sexual assault. Sandoval has cooperated with authorities, his attorney described the interaction as "consensual," and Sandoval won't discuss the legal matter. The incident occurred just hours before Sandoval was to report to the San Jose Giants to begin his minor league rehab assignment.

Sandoval is, of course, innocent until proven otherwise. For now this is a case of "he said, she said." But Sandoval, 25, is dealing with other issues that have infuriated the Giants, namely the bathroom scale said. Sandoval appears, once again, to have put on weight during his 35-game absence. And that's after not coming into spring training in exactly spry shape.

Being out partying shortly before he needed to start working is a bad look, no matter what else happened on June 1. The self-portrait Sandoval is painting is no longer one of a happy lovable cartoon character; Barry Zito bestowed the Panda nickname on Sandoval after he debuted in 2008 and showed surprising agility despite his rotund physique. Instead it is of a player prone to excess and a lack of discipline. The Giants clearly believe Sandoval isn't showing the commitment that might be expected from a young player who just signed a three-year $17.15 million contract in the offseason.

Manager Bruce Bochy hasn't minced words about his concern about Sandoval. "There comes a time when you don't want to hear it," Bochy said on Saturday, before Sandoval's return to the lineup. "You need action and that's what's gotta happen now. Which it has, for the last week. He's been working hard.

"But that's got to be consistent. It can't be three or four days, or a week. It's got to be for a season. That's what we need to see and he knows that's what he needs to do."

Sandoval knows what he needs to do. "They're the bosses," Sandoval said. "They make the decisions. If they say what they want me to do, I've got to get in shape."

Sandoval had one hit in seven at-bats over the weekend but didn't look sharp defensively. On Sunday he bobbled a potential double-play ball that extended another rough inning for hard-luck Tim Lincecum. While the rest of his team enjoys a day off on Monday, Sandoval will be at AT&T Park doing conditioning and running defensive drills at third.

Bochy wants Sandoval to play third, as the team as a surplus of first basemen. But in the past week, the manager has expressed concern about Sandoval's ability to play the hot corner. Joaquin Arias filled in admirably at third while Sandoval was out.

"I hope we're not forced to make a change," Bochy said last week. "That's in Pablo's hands."

Bochy obviously wouldn't address a legal issue still under investigation. But he didn't need to -- he made it clear the Giants are exasperated with Sandoval's mindset.

The Giants have practiced patience and tough love with Sandoval. They've conducted Operation Panda, a fitness and nutrition clinic designed especially for Sandoval. They've expressed sympathy when he went through a difficult divorce. What they haven't done is wire his mouth shut. Now, in his fifth season in the major leagues, it's time for Sandoval to take responsibility for himself.

This isn't the first time team management has bluntly questioned Sandoval's commitment. After the 2010 World Series season -- when Sandoval's production and fitness slumped so badly that by the time the World Series began he only appeared as a designated hitter in one game -- the Giants expressed their displeasure. General manager Brian Sabean warned that Sandoval might have to start the 2011 minor leagues if he didn't get in shape.

But Sabean also took some of the blame. From the moment he debuted and became a fan favorite, the Giants had pushed Sandoval as a marketing tool. Zito's nickname only helped that cause.

"I think we learned a lesson as an organization that we probably put him too far out there," Sabean said in November 2010. "In some ways it worked against him having to live up to that hype."

But this weekend you could still get a $20 Panda hat at the ballpark. And plenty of people seemed to want them.

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