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.
“When I was in the minor leagues, they wouldn’t say anything to me, and I kind of hated it,” he laughs. “I was young, I wanted to learn and I thought they knew all the answers. But they were like, ‘No, we’re not gonna touch you unless you’re really struggling, and then we’ll try to help you.’ I had decent seasons, so they were like, ‘Just keep doing what you do!’
“Looking back on it now, I was really lucky that they didn’t try to mold me a certain way, and I’ve gotta thank [former Astros hitting coach] Sean Berry for having that mentality of leaving me natural when I got to the majors,” Pence continues. “In a lot of my talks to young players, I’ll tell them that there isn’t just one way to hit – it’s all about what works for you. You’ve got to know your way – or know thyself, as they say.”
Being Hunter Pence definitely seems to work for Hunter Pence, as evidenced by his third-place finish in the 2007 NL Rookie of the Year voting, his three subsequent selections to the All-Star team and the two World Series rings he’s won since coming over to the Giants at the 2012 trade deadline. Pence hit .283 in 2013 with career highs in home runs (27), stolen bases (22) and total bases (304), good enough to earn him a contract extension worth $18.5 million a year over the next five seasons. Though his offensive stats dropped slightly in 2014, he hit a team-high .444 (12-for-27) in the World Series with three doubles, a home run, five RBIs and seven runs scored; if it hadn’t been for Bumgarner’s mound heroics, Pence may well have been named the Series MVP. But in addition to the numbers he puts up, Pence’s value to the team comes from his ability to fire up his teammates with both his positive clubhouse speeches and the intensity of his play on the field.
With his crazy eyes, wild hair and idiosyncratic style of play, it’s tempting to view Pence as a throwback to the 1970s, a decade that remains baseball’s high-water mark for freak-flag-flying characters. But rather than relating to the oddball players of that era, Pence says he feels a kinship with some of its most ferocious competitors. “George Brett and Pete Rose, those are two of my favorite players,” he says. “I like their hard-nosed way of playing the game, and that they had some personality. Pete Rose was pretty funny; stories about him and the things he said used to fire me up when I was playing college ball.”
Pence says he also draws considerable inspiration from the life and career of Babe Ruth, and he’s devoured many a Ruth biography in his spare time. “I have a fascination with anything having to do with him,” he explains. “He was a free spirit, and he was a fighter. His ability to inspire the nation to love the game of baseball, his kindness to kids, his humor with the fans and the media – those sorts of things I think are very beautiful.”
Like Ruth before him, Pence enjoys the fans, and they definitely enjoy him. Last August, a Seinfeld-themed tweet from Pence somehow triggered the #HunterPenceSigns phenomenon – everywhere the Giants played, opposing fans brandished homemade signs that mocked Pence’s intrinsic goofiness in surprisingly polite ways: “Hunter Pence Eats Pizza With a Fork.” “Hunter Pence Reads the Terms and Conditions.” “Hunter Pence Can’t Parallel Park.” “Hunter Pence Prefers Baths.” In an age of “Face of MLB” hyper-marketing, the organic emergence of this ballpark meme was incredibly refreshing, not to mention hilarious.
“It was definitely funny,” Pence says. “I’m definitely goofy, and I have fun with that, so I enjoyed all the creativity of the fans and their signs. There were a lot of good ones – I thought ‘Hunter Pence Chooses the Hamburger in the Hot Dog Race’ was pretty clever. And I really liked ‘Hunter Pence is All About That Treble.'”
And despite his good-time guy tendencies, Pence admits he’s mellowed out in recent years; catch him after a game and there’s a pretty good chance he’ll still have a beer with you, but only one (“You can’t be too pure and clean,” he laughs). He’s focused on rehabbing his broken forearm – in roughly 10 days, he’ll begin taking cuts once again. And he’s started taking care of his mind, too.
“I spend time in silence – you could call it meditating, but I just like stillness,” he says. “I like not having anything on. I try to have a balance.”
“Balance” might not be a word one would immediately associate with Pence – not just because his knobby knees always look like they’re on the verge of bending sharply in the wrong direction – but it’s a concept that’s very much at the heart of his self-image, as well as his approach to life and the game. “I hope I’m as interesting as you think I am,” he says at one point in our conversation. “I find myself quite boring, you know?”
Nobody else seems to think so. While the Giants benefit most directly from his contributions – and are certainly counting the days until his return to the lineup – there’s no question that baseball as a whole is better because of Pence’s presence. “I swing big, I live big, I take everything as big as I can,” he says. “I like to, you know, spread my light. I know that sounds kind of like, ‘Spread your wings,’ so maybe that should be, ‘Let my light shine.’ Maybe that works better?”
Whatever works for you, man. Just keep doing what you do.