By Connor Buestad (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The first time I met Joe Panik, we were standing in a dirt parking lot at dusk in San Jose, under the post-game glow of the low budget lights at “The Muni” or “San Jose Municipal Stadium” down the street from San Jose State University. The home of the Single-A Giants, The Muni is certainly not short on charm, but it also isn’t long on amenities either. An untouched relic of a bygone era of minor league baseball, The Muni does exactly what it is designed to do: cultivate the dreams of 20-year-old kids as they take their marks on the race to the major leagues.
The reason for my visit with Panik was a mutual friend, Mike Carozza. A baseball nut from the same upstate New York hometown as Panik, who grew up playing on the same little league fields as the younger Joe. Now they were both out west, attempting to make a name for themselves in San Francisco one way or another.
The three of us talked at length on that random South Bay summer night. The conversation probably wouldn’t have lasted as long, if it wasn’t for the fact that Panik was scheduled to make a public appearance at a team function later that evening. Public appearances have never been Panik’s thing. He’d much rather just talk the nuances of hitting outside his car after game 109 of a long minor league baseball season than glad-hand a bunch of people at a corporate event. But that’s just Joe.
Earlier that night, Panik had made a baby step toward his current post as the starting second baseman for the Pennant winning San Francisco Giants. He had shared the clubhouse and the infield with Pablo Sandoval, who was down in Single-A San Jose on a rehab assignment. By that same October, Pablo was hitting three home runs in one World Series game versus Justin Verlander and the Tigers, en route to the Giants’ second World Championship in three years.
Panik spent that same October of 2012 back in his hometown of Yonkers watching the World Series with his dad on Fox like the rest of us. Fast forward two short years and now Joe Panik is a far cry from Single-A San Jose, as he’s found himself in the Fall Classic himself, still just 23 years of age.
I haven’t talked to the soft-spoken, humble-as-can-be Panik since his call up to The Show. I can only guess as to what his experience has been like as a member of the Giants. But before Panik was called up to play for San Francisco, he made a stop in Triple-A Fresno to play for the Grizzlies. And Carozza and I were there for that pit stop as well, earlier this summer.
We were in Sacramento to be exact. Site of yet another nameless, faceless minor league weekday day-game. The kind of game that attracts more serious sunbathers than serious baseball fans.
We talked to Joe after this game too. This time it wasn’t in a dirt parking lot, but rather a sterile open-air shopping mall type deal in Sacramento. We ran into some veteran pitchers at the same restaurant. Pitchers that had already been up in the majors and had been sent down to Triple-A, forced to struggle their way back up. Panik discussed in earnest about how he was going to navigate his way up to San Francisco. It wouldn’t be easy, he admitted. As cliche as it sounds, he was close, but so far away. As much as he looked like a big league baseball player at that restaurant, no one was even close to recognizing the Giants’ top prospect. He would still be a nobody in the minors, until he proved otherwise.
On June 21st, young Joe got the call. And somehow, thanks to someone, an unknown blog that calls itself “Section925” was there to break the news. By this time of the year, the Giants had tried their hand with seven players at second base, including the high priced slugger Dan Uggla and World Series hero Marco Scutaro. Even so, Brian Sabean finally chose to look past Panik’s small home run totals and instead decide to focus on his picturesque left-handed swing, his steady glove, and his even steadier .300 average. Sabean’s decision, one might argue, came up aces.
In the 73 games Panik played in for the Giants this year, he hit a staggering .305. And in the League Championship Series versus the Cardinals, Panik hit a dramatic home run to help push the Giants into the World Series. If Brian Sabean wanted more home runs, he got one.
A veteran he is not, but don’t expect Panik to be overwhelmed by the World Series stage starting Tuesday in Kansas City. For anyone that has ever met Joe, knows that he never gets too high or too low. We won’t compare him to that other Joe who played football at Candlestick Park, by way of Pittsburgh, but you get the idea. The Joe Panik coming out party started in June, and it has been slowing gaining steam. Look for the party to hit it’s peak this weekend at 24 Willie Mays Plaza. At the World Series.