At the start of 1921, Babe Ruth was fresh off his first season with the New York Yankees, in which he posted an on-base percentage of .532, slugged .847, and clubbed 54 home runs, breaking his own record by 25. He had been a great player before, but this was the first season of BABE RUTH as baseball would later come to know him.
Ruth was still a baseball player, however, which meant that he was due to report to the Yankees' new spring training headquarters of Shreveport, Louisiana that March. The prospect of the game-changing, larger-than-life man-myth in the relatively small southern city was big news. "Arrival of Ruth Stirs Shreveport," read the New York Times on March 7. "Awed Multitude Greets Sultan of Swat at Station—Babe is Still Overweight."
All of which is to say that Pablo Sandoval can relax. He is in the most illustrious of company; his pendulous February belly—and the way in which he's been kicked around for it in the press—is nothing new.
When baseball's very best report to Florida and Arizona to stretch, shag flies, and demonstrate the creative renaissance of the American auto-customization industry, two things are assured. One is that nearly every able-bodied batsman will be in the best shape of his life. The second is that those players who cannot plausibly make that claim will likely find themselves the target of some manner of scolding.
Yasiel Puig, Miguel Cabrera, Chipper Jones, Prince Fielder, even Mike Trout—Mike Trout, who will not be 25 until after the next All-Star break and has been the best player in baseball for as long as he's been able to buy a beer!—have made the grievous mistake of arriving a few pounds heavier than someone expected. In turn, all have learned that, in the minds of some of those tasked with covering it, spring training isn't so much for playing yourself into shape as it is about being shamed for not being there already.
Unlike the Bambino, today's sluggers must also contend with high definition photography, which means that when Pablo Sandoval's robust paunch briefly emerged on the pages of the Boston Globe, the reaction was as panicked as it was predictable. There was shock that a highly paid franchise cornerstone could arrive in such a state, especially after a terrible 2015 season. There was fear that his body type could become more of an issue at the hot corner as he continues to age, although that was not new. There was incredulity that Sandoval himself did not appear to share these concerns.
"(I've) got nothing to prove," Sandoval told the gathered media. "I just prepare myself to perform well, support my teammates and play and try to get to the World Series. That's what I'm doing."
Shrugging off an unflattering photo is one strategy. Another, as employed by the team's principal owner, John Henry, is to replace vague conclusions drawn from a single snapshot with something more concrete. "The only thing I will say is that he came in with a body fat ratio of 17 percent," explained Henry, who presumably never envisioned he'd one day be cribbing bariatrics when he was trading soybean futures. "(He's) substantially down from last year. That's really what we're looking for…. I don't know for a fact, but I was told it was 21."
While none of this is wrong, exactly, none of it would ever have been a sufficient answer for those asking the questions about Sandoval's gut, or those of any of the other rounder-than-expected talents presently stretching and long-tossing in Florida and Arizona.
While it's unsurprising in this age of analytics that the organization would prefer to ground the conversation in something a bit more quantifiable, any baseball fan will tell you that BMI isn't really the number that will matter in the end. There is no "ideal weight" for a ballplayer, after all, but there is certainly an ideal on-base percentage. Once the calendar advances, and the new season finally provides us with some baseball statistics that count, we will learn how Sandoval's form will be framed in the months ahead. Both player and team seem to understand that achievement will ultimately trump appearance, and what they do will matter more than any snark in the daily papers.
"I don't weigh in at all," said Sandoval. "I just do my work, try to do everything I can…. I just try to get better, be in better position, be an athlete."
"I know the focus is on his weight," Henry said. "But our focus is on his ability to field the ball, throw the ball, hit the ball."
That all seems to makes perfect sense. Baseball is a simple game, after all, which is probably why the Durham Bulls didn't spend much time on nutritional science.
Further down in the Times column that hailed the Babe's arrival in Shreveport, the writer acknowledges that the Yankees' behemoth had already made headway in his own struggle with weight: "Ruth has taken off about ten pounds of the extra avoirdupois which he carried to Hot Springs two weeks ago, but there remains from fifteen to twenty more pounds to be shed before he will be down to normal playing weight." Our understanding of player health has obviously come a long way in the last century: the very same article notes that "Jack Quinn has been under the care of a physician as a result of an attack of ptomaine poisoning."
Even today, the modern game exists in a strange space between its beer-league mythos—the stories of all those lumpy hungover sluggers that rolled off the bus and clobbered some dingers—and its present reality as a highly optimized, ultra-efficient business. The game's charm is that it still makes room for all kinds: roly-poly GIF machine Bartolo Colon can still sneak not-so-fast fastballs past a remarkably disciplined, impeccably shaped physical specimen like Bryce Harper. There are certain body types that scouts tend to select for and which seem uniquely suited to the game, but also there is Chris Sale and Prince Fielder and dozens of other unconventionally shaped stars. The diamond is for dudes and demigods alike.
In these weeks before there's any actual baseball to write about, the Boston sports media will remind Sandoval, probably not very politely, about the thin line between Lovable Panda and Lazy Pariah. There isn't really much to write about yet, after all. Everyone knows that the debate will be settled, and minds made up, not by Sandoval's waistline but by his slash-line, and not just over the next couple weeks but over the next four years and $70 million or so.
Until those games begin, there is only baseball, approaching slowly but surely, and a game of sideline judgment that has been around since the Deadball Era.