Finding love again with Hunter Pence


I think I think about Hunter Pence way too much.

I’m a grown man, at least that’s what it says on my driver’s license. When I was about 10, I thought a lot about Will Clark. I thought about what he might like to eat—probably a steak or maybe crawdads. I thought about the swamps he grew up amongst and whether he was a lefty because he wrestled gators with his right.

I thought about how his eye black always looked just right and wondered if he hired a make-up artist to get it that way. I thought about how he flipped down his sunglasses when a pop up drifted his way—it was sort of a reverse (Will) Clark Kent effect. I tried to spit the way he spat and talk in his twangy drawl and I wanted to find whatever he did to get his bat around; this long, loping, southpaw thing of a swing. Even in whiffle ball, when I tried to imitate it, I couldn’t get the head of the bat there on time, ever. The only explanation was he could slow the game down, else he started his cut in the on-deck circle.

Life, I guess it can be said, got in the way of my relationship with Will Clark. Clark was traded, then retired. In my own next chapter, his presence was partially reduced to a page of baseball cards sealed in plastic at the bottom of a file box in the back of my boyhood closet.

Even so, his Starting Lineup figurine made its way on my travels and stood permanently in the batter’s box of my dorm room windowsill. Once in awhile, on a break from writing an essay or after a particularly rough-for-whatever-reason day, I would take Will Clark off the shelf and have him swing a few for me. And that usually always made things better.

Bills, cars, girls, friends, jobs—I didn’t think much about Will Clark for many years. And yet, I always felt this tinge of something for him. It wasn’t regret or remorse, it was more like the warm sting of missing or being missed. Kind of like lingering in the memory of an ex a little too long while idling away an afternoon. Comfort can often be found in absence.

And so, I missed Will Clark. I always will.

But if anything is to take the sting away permanently, and keep us driving toward that inevitable endless horizon, it is the promise of renewal.

It’s like dating and relationships and love. There are false starts and times you try to force it. There are times you try to make yourself believe that it’s something it’s not. And there are times, the rarest of times, when it just works. As a grown man, I’ve managed to divert my attentions to other players on the Giants: Marvin Benard, Jeff Kent, Barry Bonds, Sean Estes …even Tim Lincecum struck my fancy. We had something there, we surely did. And it was great. It surely was. But I kept remembering how I felt (feel, really) about Will Clark, and well, it just wasn’t the same.

Then something happened in 2012. Hunter Pence came to town. The fundamentals-free slack-jawed assassin from Texarcana who looks like a younger version of the knight guarding the Cup of Christ in Last Crusade, stands at a heroic 6’4″, 210, ambles with a terrible gait, sports a goofy swing and knee-high socks and rides a scooter as his main mode of transportation. The 40th-round draft pick was shipped over to San Francisco from Philly on Aug. 1 for local-boy outfielder Nate Schierholtz, minor league catcher Tommy Joseph and minor league pitcher Seth Rosin.

Pence immediately started acting as one part free-swinger and one part hype man for the playoff-bound but non-threatening Giants. On October 10, in Game 3 of the NLDS with the Giants on the brink of elimination in Cincinnati, Pence gave his teammates a now-legendary pregame pep-talk in the dugout featuring a lot of expletives and a lot of jumping around. It was punctuated with a sunflower seed shower.

It worked. And it worked again. …And again. In two short weeks, Pence had turned himself from something of a young journeyman outfielder who was looking squarely forward to returning to Houston in the offseason, to tech town’s newest toast, spraying Bud Lights off a trolley car careening down Market Street as a world champion.

The affair hasn’t ended. Though the injury-laden Giants quickly faded in the hangover morning of their second world championship in three years last season, Pence managed to hit more than 100 RBIs and dust of his mantle for the Willie Mac Award, most inspirational as voted by the guys who share the locker room with him.

The next day, the last of the season, he agreed to a five-year $90-million extension with the Giants. A nice bit of change for a Texas boy to rattle around and surely enough to buy a back-up for the scooter which was stolen in front of a San Francisco waterfront steakhouse (boo) and later returned (yay).

Pence is baseball’s current iron man and has a streak of playing in 383 straight games. Sure, that’s about 2,300 short of Cal Ripken, but in this era of information-based apathy, it’s a helluva lot to show up ready to play and hustle every day.

He still makes his speeches. A particularly colorful dirge followed the Giant’s final game of the regular season. It was about working hard and having the vision and well, so what if they were a Wild Card, it was time to go out and fulfill the promise they made to one another in spring training.

I understand this kind of rah-rah stuff is what makes the promotions department cream its jeans, especially in the post-season. And I know it can be either for show or to make spectacle from the spectacle. There are two distinctly different clubhouses—the one when the camera lights are on and the Champagne and goggles are out and the one when the music dies and athletes-as-products/as expendable machines, have to walk out fragile and mortal and, especially after 162 games, often broken.

And that’s a bit of the why Hunter Pence sticks with me. Because I really do believe he believes what he’s saying. And his teammates, I think they might believe a little bit too.

The more I think about Hunter Pence, the more I think about what he might do. When I’m on a long run and can extend it a couple miles or turn around and go home, I extend it—because that’s what Hunter Pence would do. When I have a pile of work and meetings and just don’t want to do any of it but instead click over and look at tweets, I go to work—because that’s what Hunter Pence would do. When I’m dragging out of bed during the part of night the world is lit by streetlight and drizzle, my turn to tend to the young son, I get up—because that’s what Hunter Pence would do.

As I watch him camp out when a pop up drifts his way or listen to his twang or watch him get 40k plus to join in a WWE chant—I think yes, yes, yes—Hunter Pence.

And for a moment, I am 10 again.