It’s the bottom of the ninth inning, seventh game of the 2014 World Series. Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants have been holding on to a 3-2 lead since the fourth, but the potential tying run has just arrived at third base in the form of Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon, whose two-out, opposite-field slap to left-center has somehow managed to elude both Gregor Blanco and Juan Perez on its way to the wall. The capacity crowd at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium is going absolutely insane, but the happiest person in the ballpark might actually be the gangly dude in right field wearing a Giants uniform.
“That was such a beautiful moment,” Hunter Pence says. “My whole mindset is just about trying to enjoy the moment, so I was like, ‘This is the beauty of baseball – Game 7, two outs and the tying run on third!’ That whole World Series was such a battle; I was like, ‘Hey, if this goes into extra innings, could it be any crazier of a story?’ To be part of something that special was really blissful!”
There would be no extra innings, of course; just a few moments later, Royals catcher Salvador Perez popped out to Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval, giving San Francisco its third World Series championship in five years, and ratcheting Pence’s bliss up even further. “I can’t express in words the euphoria of accomplishing that with that group of guys, and with the city and the team and the organization,” he says. “Yeah, it was special.”
Things are looking somewhat less euphoric for the Giants these days. Sandoval, who joined the Red Sox via free agency this winter, recently unleashed a barrage of trash-talk about his old team that made more than a few San Franciscans disavow the warm fuzzies they once felt for the “Kung Fu Panda”. In mid-March, the team’s lackluster Spring Training play moved manager Bruce Bochy to lament that the Giants were “not even close to being ready” for Opening Day. And Pence, the team’s starting right fielder and spiritual leader, isn’t expected to be back in the lineup until May, thanks to a stray fastball from Cubs prospect Corey Black that simultaneously broke Pence’s left forearm and his streak of 383 consecutive regular-season games played.
Pence’s injury, which occurred in just his second game of the spring, prompted some Giants fans to bombard Black with all manner of Twitter hate, including threats of bodily harm and hopes that he would soon contract a venereal disease. But Pence himself reacted in a far classier fashion, responding to an apologetic tweet from Black by telling him, “It happens my friend. Thanks for the concern, it’s a part of the game we love.”
Several weeks after the plunking, Pence remains philosophical about it, even though he just had his cast removed.
“These things happen,” he says, “And it’s something that happens a lot in the early spring, when the pitchers are still trying to find their arm slots. This was a young guy, throwing hard, and it got away from him. You can’t control your arm getting broken by a pitch. A lot of times, it’s about luck – you have to be lucky enough to not have this situation happen. So right now, I’m doing everything I can to focus my mind on healing, and I’m doing every little thing I need to do to keep my body in shape and try to get back to playing as quickly as possible.”
Whether he’s reveling in the beauty of a nail-biting ballgame or shrugging off the hazards of his chosen profession, Hunter Pence is a man who clearly prefers to focus on the positive. But don’t let his upbeat demeanor – or his scooter-riding photo bombs, One Direction dance sessions or willingness to poke fun at his own unorthodox style of play – fool you. This is also a man with a mile-wide competitive streak.
Take the pants, for example. While some players like to sport the old-school look of uniform pants rolled up to the knee, Pence actually wears his above the knee, which – combined with his unruly curls and scraggly beard – generally makes him look like he just got back from stomping grapes at the local Renaissance Faire, or auditioning for the Ian Anderson role in a Jethro Tull cover band. As baseball fashion statements go, it’s a rather unique one, but Pence’s unusual sartorial choice isn’t about drawing attention to himself; it’s about kicking ass on the field.
“My look has always been ‘pants-up,'” he explains, “but the last year and a half, I’ve gone above the knee, because I don’t like the pants tugging at my knee. I just feel more free with them up there. It’s definitely not for the look, because it is strange. But I just feel better and faster with my pants up there.
“You know, I get these comments from fans, like, ‘You’re wearing your pants the wrong way!'” he continues. “Well, how do you know the right way to wear baseball pants? Isn’t this within the rules of the league? I’m free to be myself, and my intention is to be the best player I can for the San Francisco Giants and to win baseball games. My personality is about winning, in any way; I really don’t care how I look – I just want to find a way to win.”
Amazingly, despite all of his quirks – his jittery batting stance, his loopy swing, his impatience at the plate (he’s averaged 48 walks per season in his MLB career to date, while whiffing an average of 118 times), his quasi-sidearm throws and conceptual outfield routes – Pence has encountered relatively little pressure to be anything other than himself over the course of his professional career. Signed by the Houston Astros out of the University of Texas at Arlington (he was selected in the second round of the 2004 amateur draft, just ahead of Dustin Pedroia), Pence says he was actually frustrated at first by the Astros’ hands-off approach to his development.