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San Jose Mercury News

A hard sell: How a bait shop, a chowder house and the surf helped to save Angel Pagan's sanity

by Andrew Baggarly
Angel Pagan #16 of the San Francisco Giants
Phoenix, AZ – April 03: Angel Pagan #16 of the San Francisco Giants salutes teammates in the dugout after hitting a three-run home run against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the eight inning of the MLB game at Chase Field on April 3, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

SAN FRANCISCO – Imagine Bruce Bochy’s surprise. The Giants had a day off last summer so he headed down the peninsula to try a little surfcasting. He stopped into Hi’s Tackle Box, 15 miles from the ballpark in South San Francisco.

And there, in the modest storefront on the backside of a Safeway parking lot, he found Angel Pagan working behind the counter.

“Oh, I was stunned,” Bochy said. “The last place I’m expecting to see one of my players is in a bait shop on a day off. And there he was.”

Just as stunning: the sight of Pagan laughing and carrying on with customers, posing for pictures, and genially saying yes to every autograph request. There was no sign of the stern face he so often wore in the clubhouse and on the field. You couldn’t reel in his enthusiasm.

Now just one week into this season, bait-shop Pagan has become ballpark Pagan. And there is a simple reason for it. He feels good physically. So he feels good mentally.

“When you have injuries and your family depends on this, and your teammates depend on you, you don’t have a lot of room to smile,” Pagan said over the weekend. “A lot of my teammates have told me how much different I look this year, just more happy.”

The physical difference is even easier to spot, and it was apparent from the start of spring training. Pagan is covering ground in the outfield again. He’s stealing bases. Whereas last year he had an extreme upper-body swing, the result of tendinitis and scar tissue in both knees, he is showing the ability to drive the ball once more.

He hit a home run Sunday against the Dodgers. It came in the seventh game of the season. Last year, he didn’t hit his first home run until Sept. 5.

Pagan even set aside the innate pride that is standard equipment to every center fielder. He accepted a move to left field following the addition of Denard Span. What’s more, Pagan ceded his leadoff spot and has bought in to a new role as the club’s No.9 hitter.

Bochy said there were several reasons he never liked the concept of batting the pitcher eighth. Among them: whoever bats ninth could view it as a slap in the face.

“That’s why I was adamant about not doing it,” said Bochy, who anticipated a hard sell with Pagan. “But Angel, he’s been really amazing all through this, being a good teammate, wanting to help in any way he can.”

Said Pagan: “I like it. … Actually, I like it a lot, because I can still think as a leadoff hitter. It’s having two leadoff hitters together. It’s good to have. When you have two fast guys going one after another, it can create a good situation for the team. What’s not to like?”

It worked perfectly in the April 4 opener at Milwaukee, after pitcher Madison Bumgarner made the final out of the second inning. Pagan led off the third, drew a walk, stole second base and scored easily on Span’s single.

Pagan will return to the leadoff spot whenever Span gets a day off. He won’t return to center field, though. Pagan and Bochy agreed that it is best to focus on left field, which might require less range but necessitates even sharper instincts to read those tailing line drives and rewards first-step quickness because the ball often finds you faster.

“I’ve noticed a few plays in shallow left, ones I’ve had to go get in the past, and Angel has called me off,” shortstop Brandon Crawford said. “I’ve had a few left fielders in the last five or six years who wouldn’t have gotten to those. And he’s taken them.”

Pagan has a better shot at making those plays now. After hamstring tendon surgery in 2013, lower back surgery in ’14, playing all of last season with two highly compromised knees, and then undergoing a procedure on his right knee in October to wash out scar tissue, it might have required wild optimism for the Giants to project a full recovery – especially for a player who will turn 35 in July.

But Pagan, whose four-year, $40 million contract expires after this season, said he is not feeling his age.

“If you believe you will recover a little slower, then you’ll recover slower,” he said. “So I was believing I’d recover like a 20-year-old guy. And it went really well. The offseason was productive for me. I felt I needed a change and together with the procedure, I involved new trainers. The mix was perfect, and I feel great. I’m just happy to be in the lineup and happy to be healthy and contribute to the team.”

He acknowledged that it was hard to be a positive presence last year, when his .332 slugging percentage was the third lowest of any major league regular. His escape is his family, and his two oldest daughters, Anyelina and Briana, aren’t in strollers anymore. They spent most of last season in Puerto Rico, busy with music classes and recitals and surf school.

“Every time my family is here and I have a bad day, it’s never a bad day,” said Pagan, whose wife, Windy, gave birth to a third daughter, Larah Milana, in January. “So last year was very difficult.”

Whether trying to escape loneliness or frustration, Pagan found a reliable way to refresh his spirit. He’d head down to Half Moon Bay, sit down on the beach by himself and watch the surfers.

“I love to go fishing, but it’s a lot of standing around and it can be punishing on your back,” he said. “I’d rather watch the surfers, smell a little salt air and enjoy the beach. … And then go down to Sam’s Chowder House and crush.”

He’d also make regular stops at Hi’s, ostensibly to talk about purchases for his boat in Puerto Rico but mostly to shoot the bull with shop owner Jonah Lee. They became friends a couple years ago after an introduction from former Giants Andres Torres and Marco Scutaro.

“They’d play a day game and I’d hold the shop open for them,” Lee said. “They’d bring their whole families in. It’d be a place to just come and relax. Angel, he has carte blanche here.”

One time a Little League coach brought his son into the shop and recognized Pagan. Within 20 minutes and a dozen text messages, the place was filled with 10- and 11-year-olds.

“It didn’t bother him at all,” Lee said of Pagan. “He was very obliging with everyone. He didn’t wait for people to ask for a picture. He’d offer to take it himself. And he’s always speaking highly of the Giants.”

On the day that Bochy happened to walk through the front door, he intended to walk out with some bait. Instead, after hearing Pagan’s enthusiastic sales pitch, he left with a high-end Shimano Stella spinning reel that was so pricy it set off an alarm with his credit card company.

“He ended up selling me the most expensive reel in the shop,” said Bochy, who tacked on a rod and more equipment and rang up a bill of more than $3,000. “He got me good on that one.”

No wonder Lee enjoys Pagan’s visits so much. His hardest seller doesn’t even work on commission.