SAN FRANCISCO — Those oversized panda heads are being put away — at least the ones seen in the first row at AT&T Park. Pablo Sandoval's bamboo-eating buddies aren't following him to Beantown.
Sam Li, a San Francisco Giants fan often inside one of the four humongous panda heads, said Wednesday he and his friends have decided they must find a new way to honor their team. They had worn those heads in tribute to Sandoval, nicknamed "Kung Fu Panda" by teammate Barry Zito in September 2008.
After his $17.15 million, three-year contract ended with the Giants, Sandoval agreed to a $95 million, five-year deal with Boston this week, saying he needed a "new challenge."
Li, best friend Michael Jessen and about eight others have rotated under the panda heads in recent years. Li said in an email to The Associated Press that the group became Giants fans while attending college at California-Berkeley across the bay and found the "original head" on Amazon.com for about $130. They acquired the rest from a toy manufacturer who is a friend of Li's.
"We could not believe how much more fun those little somethings — the panda heads — brought to every San Franciscan's life," Li wrote. "For that, we felt the best. We have stuck those heads out of our car windows after games, and every single San Franciscan on the street brought a wide grin and joy. It is only a very small something, not more than say bringing a jacket to a game, but it touches so many people on so many levels, and in a lot of cases, changes people's life. It is wonderful."
Li said the group hopes to donate one of the panda heads to the Giants with the idea that it could be placed in the clubhouse or somewhere special in the ballpark to remember Sandoval's contributions to World Series title teams in 2010, '12 and '14. Li termed the head "part of Giants' history."
Sandoval, a free-swinging, switch-hitting third baseman, was MVP of the 2012 Series sweep of Detroit after a three-homer game in the opener.
Sandoval wasn't even Li's favorite Giants player. That distinction goes to catcher Buster Posey, and the group wore Posey jerseys along with the panda heads.
"Everyone asked, 'Why 28 jersey with panda?' We always answered, 'We are here for the team,'" Li said. "It is teamwork, and the Giants have better teamwork than any other baseball team."
Li said part of the pleasure of wearing the panda heads has been to support the Giants without making their identities known. Some of the group also wore fake facial hair during the "Fear the Beard" movement when bushy-bearded closer Brian Wilson worked the ninth inning for San Francisco.
The only other member of the group Li identified by name was Jessen, president of Wally's Wine Auctions in New York. Li said he and his friends attended every postseason game during each World Series run.
"We must have about 10 different friends of ours inside a panda head at games, in some rotations," Li said. "(Michael) is a Yankees fan, naturally, but the Giants are his National League team and West Coast team, so it fit well to his passion for the Yankees. Other friends are more shy like myself."
They have enjoyed getting to know Sandoval and wish him well. But they are loyal to the orange and black and don't have a trip planned to Fenway Park to catch Sandoval in a Red Sox uniform next year.
"Good luck to Pablo, and we will watch Boston with interest," Li said. "Nothing more. We will not cheer for any other player than in Giants' jerseys. We will have to find something else to bring that dimension back to the game. We will retire the panda heads."