The Old-School Passion of Hunter Pence
THAT WORD "GOOFY" KEEPS COMING UP, even though Pence has a decidedly un-goofy physique. He is six-foot-four and 218 pounds of model-grade muscle, with broad shoulders and thick arms and a flat, fat-less stomach that he recently put on display (again) in a picture he tweeted from Clearwater. In the photo, he and Dom Brown stand shirtless and flexing. Hamels says Pence looks like he ought to carry “Thor’s battle-ax.” Pence has appeared in the pages of this magazine as one of the top 10 people Philadelphians want to see naked; Jimmy Rollins’s wife and my wife were also on that list. Pence finds this amusing. The first thing he says to me before the photo shoot is, “I hear your wife and I have a lot in common”—an unnerving thing for a husband to hear from any man, and even more disquieting when it’s uttered by a high-profile, rich Major League outfielder.
And yet despite the chiseled exterior, something about Pence’s gait and aw-shucks attitude is disarming. Goofy, even. This intangible works as camouflage. It softens him, transforms him, in a way, from a celebrity to something on the order of neighborhood rascal. “There’s so many ways to explain that word ‘goofy,’” Victorino says. “For him, it’s his personality. His swing is one thing, that’s goofy. But it’s his personality, too. That’s just who he is. He’s goofy. People love that about him.”
Among other things. He plays hard, and the fans here seem to like that, too. But playing hard and well only got Mike Schmidt so much love, and got Scott Rolen even less. Pence is somewhat shocked to learn that a Hall of Famer like Schmidt had his battles with the fans and the media, and was unaware that Rolen still gets booed when he comes to town. When he hears that Rolen once skipped Scott Rolen Day, Pence looks like he’s just learned that Santa Claus called out on Christmas one year.
“Why?” he asks, incredulous. He seems genuinely distraught, as though he doesn’t want to believe it. Pence can be earnest at times, a trait that often manifests itself when he’s discussing the fans and their interaction with him. “Still today, just signing an autograph, that’s not a big deal—me writing my name on something, it doesn’t mean much,” he says. “But then you look at how excited people get, someone is this excited for me to write my name. And I didn’t really do anything. That’s mind-blowing, yeah. I get tweeted after I sign something, like ‘Aw, man, you made my life.’ I don’t know … fans are awesome.”
His remarks make for an interesting contrast when juxtaposed against the words and actions of two teammates he reveres: Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. He gushes about them as ballplayers and especially leaders. Pence says when he became a Phillie, Rollins made a point of telling him to be himself. And when Pence wasn’t sure what time to head to the ballpark at first, Utley gave him a ride. “I was at a hotel,” Pence recalls. “I didn’t have a car or anything. … I said, ‘I could just take a cab.’ He said, ‘Yeah, you could just take a cab. But I’ll be there at nine to pick you up.’”
Pence loves telling these stories. But while all three men are fan favorites, their relationships with the public are decidedly different. Utley’s popularity has always seemed less about charisma and more about the head-down, spikes-up way he plays, while Rollins has developed the kind of teasing, sometimes antagonistic rapport with fans that you see among close friends who bust each others’ balls to show affection. About the fans, Rollins once said, “They’re funny. They get on you. But it’s kind of like the way your family gets on you.” In October—after the Phils and Cliff Lee blew a four-run lead to the Cardinals in Game 2 of the NLDS—Rollins tweaked his extended family on Twitter: “Not the result we wanted but that’s the way it is!! Now we just gotta handle biz on the road! Also fans were waaay to [sic] quiet tonight.” When I ask Pence about that, he’s slow to answer. He’s not sure he should say anything at all, because it was a touchy subject then, and might still be now. He waits for a moment before speaking.
“I love Jimmy, but it’s not the fans’ fault for not having energy,” he says. “If we make it happen, they’ll get excited. I’ve never heard a louder cheer than when Ryan Howard hit that home run [in Game 1 of the NLDS]. The energy and the excitement come from us. I love Jimmy, and maybe he meant something different. But if the fans are getting quiet, it’s because we’re not making it happen. You can feel momentum. The fans can feel momentum. It was just one of those things—some of the games were in our favor, some were in theirs. The Cardinals caught lightning in a bottle. There’s a reason why it doesn’t happen that often for teams. I feel like we could have done a lot better. That series hurts. It’s painful to even talk about. But it definitely isn’t the fans. We’re the ones who make the fans go crazy. Ultimately it’s on me, it’s on everyone that was out there.”