Here is a link to my Wednesday column about Angel Pagan. The full text runs below:
Angel Pagan reported to work on Tuesday, but it wasn’t the regular kind of reporting to work. It wasn’t getting up in the morning and drinking a cup of joe and driving over to the office and saying hello to the guys. Nothing like that.
It was reintroducing himself to his colleagues. It was re-establishing himself as a mainstay in his own organization. It was showing he matters. For a long time, Pagan was the Giants’ leadoff hitter and center fielder. According to manager Bruce Bochy, Pagan was the engine that made the offense go. He was that important.
But in the postseason 2014, the Giants did not have Pagan. His season ended in September with back surgery to correct a bulging disk. And the team never looked back. You know that. The Giants won everything, won every playoff series and the World Series. And they did all that without Pagan. Call it a Pagan-less effort. You could argue the Giants could not have achieved the postseason without Pagan — although that is debatable one way or the other. But they sure did not need him in the playoffs. It is a fact as indisputable as New York pizza is tops.
That means Pagan is returning to a team that got on without him. He has something to prove. Lots to prove. Last season, because of assorted injuries, he played 96 games. The previous season, he played 71. Those two seasons combined add up to a little more than one full season. Pagan certainly is a presence when he’s present. He’s also an absence if you go by the numbers. He is trying to be a presence that is always present.
He showed up later than his teammates on Tuesday for the first full-squad workout. Sat down at his locker and began to change into his uniform. Actually, he has two lockers, side by side. It is the star treatment — Barry Bonds rated two lockers. Pagan is worth the extra space, has earned it. The extra locker also is a form of encouragement. “We need you, man. Spread out. Feel comfortable.”
When he was dressed, he turned around. He is a dark handsome man with a sensitive eyes and a sensitive mouth. His manner is earnest. He can be friendly.
“It feels good to be back healthy and ready to help this team in 2015,” he said. It is what players always say, but in his case it had extra meaning. It’s like he returned from the dead.
His back is pain free after his surgery and recovery, he said. A year ago it wasn’t. “My mornings were miserable. Have to get up and get in the hot tub to get my body warmed up. It was a disaster. I felt I could still play through it, but it was getting worse and worse. I could put my career at risk. If you see a picture of my body, I looked like a Z when I get up. I felt like I gave it all to the team, gave my best effort. I had to think of my future.”
Understand, he was a Z in spring training. At times, he was a man bent like a pretzel. The most basic acts of running after fly balls or running the bases or, God forbid, stealing a base caused his nerve fibers to go wild. If he kept it up, a doctor told him, he could suffer permanent neurological damage.
“From the beginning of last season, I was having issues and trying to play through it. I was trying to make it to the playoffs. I couldn’t do it. I think I helped the team enough to get to playoffs and then they picked me up.”
He spoke of his back the way someone speaks of a traitor. It always had been on his side – his friend and ally. Then it betrayed him, became the enemy. “This is wear and tear,” he said. “I’ve been at this game 20 years professionally, lifting, rotating, hitting walls. Probably if all of you get an MRI, you have a bulging disk and don’t know it, but for me it was pinching a nerve. Even though my numbers during season reflected I was doing okay (.300 batting average), inside myself I was giving so much, giving an effort that could have gotten me in trouble. I’m so happy I got it done. I’m 33 years old, I have more to prove.”
He said he can do everything now. No restrictions. He said he could play 162 games. That’s easy to say in February. It’s the right thing to say. Asked if he has to adjust — i.e. not play hard — he said, “I don’t know what that means, adjusting, I just know how to play one speed. I can play hard. I just have to be smart.”
When it was his turn to run the bases, he ran effortlessly. He started and stopped and turned around and looked lithe and quick. An athlete with no impediments. He is a man with an old body that just became a young body. That’s what you call being reborn.
Bochy still wants him to lead off. But only some of the time. That’s a change. The Giants batting order is in flux. It’s mostly leadoff hitters and No.2 hitters — sure, Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Hunter Pence exist, but come on. In an order like that, Pagan has many uses. Call him the all-purpose hitter. The floater.
“I’ve hit in every spot in the lineup in my career,” he said. “First time I came here, Bochy told me, ‘One of the main reasons you were traded here was because of your versatility.’ I’ve hit third all the way down to ninth. Whatever he (Bochy) ends up doing I’ll respect.”
Pagan took batting practice in a group with Joe Panik, Nori Aoki and Brandon Crawford. Panik and Aoki hit line drives to all fields. Hit the ball hard. Pagan swung without pain. Looked good in the batter’s box in his new clean uniform. He hit ground balls and high pop-ups and a few line drives.
At this time last year, he hit home runs. Things are different now. He is a man in search of the feel of hitting, the timing, the vision.
It was his first day back at work.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn.pressdemocrat.com.