As Edgar Renteria, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and J.D. Drew can tell you, playing in the Boston media market is a pressure cooker like no other.
Pablo “Panda” Sandoval is discovering that now, as his weight is being scrutinized more than Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Sandoval just showed up to Red Sox Spring Training camp looking extra flabby, and not content with straight-forwardly documenting that, Boston sports photographers are tripping over each other to take ultra low-angle shots and extreme close-ups of his belly.
There’s been no bait-and-switch here. Sandoval wasn’t nicknamed the “Gazelle” when the Sox signed him to a five-year, $95 million contract, but baseball writers and talk radio conversations have been brutal, pulling out every tired fat joke from the junior high locker room with an undercurrent of moral superiority.
When I recently defended Sandoval in a column (“We Are All Fat Panda”) for Boston’s NPR station, I immediately thought of the Bad News Bears’ chubby catcher, Mike Engelberg.
In the original 1976 classic baseball movie, Engelberg (actor Gary Lee Cavagnaro) eats candy during games and gets melted chocolate all over his uniform. The other Little Leaguers mercilessly make fun of him until they see him hit. Engelberg becomes a fearsome slugger, quickly shutting the mouths of disrespectful teammates and opponents alike.
I hope that Pablo Sandoval silences his critics in the same way this season, especially since they started yammering before he had a single at bat.
Now, I fully realize that Mike Engelberg is a fictitious character, but feelings are feelings, so I wondered if he might have any empathy for what the Panda is going through this Spring Training. Now a sales manager for a multinational electronics company based in Texas, Cavagnaro was kind enough to humor me with a phone call.
Here’s our conversation:
HOVG: It’s the 40th anniversary of the Bad News Bears and I shouldn’t assume anything just because you were in the movie: Are you a big baseball fan?
Gary Cavagnaro: Absolutely. I’m a lifelong Texas Rangers fan and was at the very first game after the team moved here from Washington D.C. I remember Frank Howard hitting a home run. (We checked the box score for Opening Day 1972 and his memory is correct. They won that day for Gary, but the Rangers went 54-100 that year under manager Ted Williams!)
HOVG: Who were your favorite players growing up?
GC: (Rangers catcher) Jim Sundberg – he was kind of a pudgy guy behind the plate. I also really liked reliever Bill Gogolewski.
HOVG: Are you still in touch with the other Bears?
GC: Yes, most of the guys are in touch on Facebook. When it was the 30th anniversary, David Pollock (reliever Rudy Stein) and I made an appearance together as pitcher and catcher at a Brockton Rox minor league game.
HOVG: Are you in touch with Tatum O’Neal (star pitcher Amanda Whurlitzer)?
GC: Nope. We were worlds apart back then and we haven’t gotten any closer. (One look at the original movie poster makes it clear why the other kid actors knew they were not in O’Neal’s league.)
HOVG: On the movie set of the Bears, did the other kids poke fun at your weight?
GC: Yeah. Kids can be mean. That’s what kids do. But we got to be good friends and when they saw that it hurt me, they stopped.
HOVG: You gave up your movie career so you could lose weight, isn’t that right?
GC: Yes. I turned 12 years old on the set and I was 5’0” and 225 pounds. The summer after the movie I was 5’5” and 155 pounds. The doctors had told me that if I kept going the same way I was going, I’d probably be in a wheelchair by 21 and dead by 30. That scared the hell out of me. The movie producers asked me to gain 80 pounds for the sequel (The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training), but I obviously wasn’t going to do that. They didn’t want to write my weight loss into the script. Losing weight isn’t a funny storyline.
HOVG: Have you been following the Pablo Sandoval controversy about his weight?
GC: A little bit. I’m not in the Boston area, so I don’t hear about it anywhere near as much as you do. From what I’ve seen of Sandoval, he’s been able to perform at a very high level regardless of what he looks like. More power to him. Haters are gonna hate.
HOVG: Any advice for Panda for how to handle all the insults?
GC: He just needs to do what he’s been doing in the past to succeed and that will shut them all up. As for those who remain critical after that, some people will never shut up because they build themselves up by tearing others down. There’s scene in the movie when Buttermaker (the Little League manager played by Walter Matthau) yells at my character for not hustling and I tell him to quit bugging me about my weight. See, I remember that line 40 years later. Most people who have a weight problem know they have a problem and they are doing the best they can. Leave them alone. Harping on them does no good.
HOVG: Anything you’d like to add about the 40th anniversary of The Bad News Bears?
GC: I just feel blessed to have been part of it. I really never turn down appearance requests because I never know which one will be the last one. If I can help out a charity by bringing back a few memories, I’m happy to do it!
(If you happen to be in the Florida area, Gary Lee Cavagnaro will be doing a promotional appearance with the Fort Myers Miracle in May – Date TBA.)
Darren Garnick is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker based in New Hampshire. A diehard Red Sox fan, his favorite players as a kid were Jim Rice and Carney Lansford. Darren blogs about baseball and pop culture at https://darrengarnick.wordpress.com/