The Old-School Passion of Hunter Pence

He strives, he craves, he hustles. He’s still not over last year. And he’s hungry, literally and figuratively. In other words, Hunter Pence isn’t just a Phillie now—he’s a Philadelphian. Which may explain why we’ve fallen for him so hard.

IN AN EPISODE OF THE SITCOM It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia titled “The World Series Defense,” the gang hatches a plan to have Sweet Dee run onto the field at Citizens Bank Park and kiss a player. Mac lobbies for her to make out with Chase Utley so she can serve as a courier for a note he’s tried to deliver for years, unsuccessfully, to the popular second baseman.

“Um, did you write a love letter to Chase?” Dee asks.

“In a lot of ways, yes,” Mac replies, “I do love him.” The letter goes like this:

“Dear Chase: I feel like I can call you Chase because you and me are so much alike. I would love to meet you some day. It would be great to have a catch. I know I can’t throw as fast as you, but I think you would be impressed with my speed. I love your hair. You run fast. Did you have a good relationship with your father? Me neither. These are all things we can talk about and more. I know you have not been getting my letters because I know you would write back if you did, and I hope you write back this time and we get to be good friends. I am sure our relationship would be a real home run.”

The idea in Mac’s addled mind is that Utley might want a younger brother—even though, as Dee points out while laughing at him, Mac is five years older. On a show known for bizarre escapades, this particular plot line feels more like an uncomfortable Philly sports documentary. Real-life Macs exist. Hunter Pence knows a few.

“The craziest for me, I was just walking to the diner, it was a few blocks, and there’s a DHL driver going down the street, stops his car, hops out, hands me a DHL pin, shakes my hand, says, ‘You’re going to be a World Champion and thanks for coming to our city,’” Pence says, citing one example in what’s become a never-ending parade of grown men who would probably rather talk to him than to former Playboy Playmate Shannon James, whom Pence dated for a while. (The pair broke up before spring training.) “Construction workers and painters on the side of the road building stuff run over to take pictures. I was like, ‘Holy cow.’ I didn’t think anyone would recognize me. I played for maybe two games. It didn’t matter what anyone was doing, they were coming to shake my hand. It was a lot different than I’m used to.”

Before long, there was a Hunter Pence Facebook fan page and a Hunter Pence fan website. People dressed as him for Halloween and sat in the outfield with various signs to get his attention (“Penceylvania,” “It’s Hunter Season,” “Hunt for Red October,” and so on). One woman tweeted the outfielder to inform him she’d named her kitten “Hunter Pounce.” If there was a flashpoint for the Pence phenomenon—an exact moment when he rocketed from being The New Guy to Philly’s Guy—it occurred late last July. It was Pence’s second game in a Phils uniform. They were playing the Pirates at home. It was a warm Sunday, about 89 degrees, and the Fightin’s were scheduled to begin a road trip the next day. The game went into extra innings. There’s nothing the players hate more than extra innings before a road trip. Pence remembers Shane Victorino saying he was hungry, and that Pence should “do something” so they could go eat somewhere. Pence did something. With one out and no one on in the bottom of the 10th, Pence doubled. Then he scored the winning run when Raul Ibanez drove him in.

In his postgame TV interview with Gary Matthews, Pence uttered five simple but now well-worn words: “Good game. Let’s go eat.” For a guy from Texas, it was a decidedly Philly summation—short and punchy, the kind of blue-collar quote everyone from the Northeast to the Navy Yard could hear himself uttering if given a microphone and an audience with Sarge. The phrase immediately entered the local lexicon. Mainstream media and bloggers scribbled about it; radio shows yammered about it; fans parroted it. Signs were made. Shirts were worn. After just two games, Pence had a catchphrase. And Philly had a new favorite player. “It’s a cliché made out of who he is,” says Victorino. “‘Good game, let’s go eat.’ That’s Hunter.”

“Some guy,” Pence adds, “went to the ballpark with a giant fork.” He knows this because the man sent him a picture via Twitter. In the photo, the fan is dressed like Pence: high red socks, and one of those powder blue bastardized half jersey/half shirt abominations with “Pence” across the shoulders and a red number three sticker ironed on the back. The fan is smiling an easy midsummer grin the size of the power alley in right-center field, and he’s holding a giant fork that a lady friend of his fashioned out of Popsicle sticks, cardboard and excess idol worship. The fork is at least as wide as the fan’s body, and if you cut him off at the knees it would be just as tall. “Good Game” is written in huge block letters on the top of the fork, and “Let’s Go Eat” is printed vertically along the handle. I know this fan. He’s a buddy of mine. He’s 33. Pence is 28. The fan/friend asked that his name not appear in this article. You can call him Mac.

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  • DDP

    “This is a provincial town, a place where much of our collective identity and attitude is linked to our professional sports franchises.” At least Gonzo got one thing right with this fawning article. And it’s Philly’s detriment that we are like this, too.

  • Alex

    I’ve often wondered the same thing: why do we gravitate towards certain players and people and reject others? Why did McNabb get so much hate but a guy like Chase Utley rarely does?

  • Mike

    It’s a simple explanation if you’re wondering why guys like Hunter and Chase are praised and Donovan is vilified. In Philadelphia, it has always been about how you play the game. Hunter has always had the rep of playing the game as hard as he could. I think of a guy like George Brett when I think of Hunter Pence. Speaking of 2nd baseman, I can find only a handful of people who say the same about Utley, and those are people reaching at very tiny straws. Utley brought a lot of fans back to the Phillies, who wandered away when Travis Lee was playing 1st base, Marlon Anderson was our starting 2nd baseman, and Mike Lieberthal gave answers like “whatever” when asked about the team’s, and his in particular, lack of success. When you look at a guy like McNabb, who had an outstanding career as arguably the best Eagles QB ever, his time here is marred by draft day pouting, air guitar playing, TO feuding, overtime ignorance, and costly NFC championship ending interceptions.
    There’s an obvious difference in personalities and perception, and that used to be enough in Philly, rightfully or wrongfully so…