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.

PENCE DOESN’T THINK IT’S A BIG DEAL. He’s convinced his popularity—which he’s grateful for, even as he remains somewhat uncomfortable with it—is a simple by-product of on-field production and nothing more. Before Pence, the Phillies, always a streaky hitting team under Charlie Manuel, were desperate for a right-handed bat to balance the left-hand-heavy lineup, someone who could drive in runs and get on base. Pence did that. Pence hustled. Pence played 48 straight games without taking a day off. He hit .330 with six home runs and 16 RBIs in his first month here. “Hunter Pence brought that energy back to us,” Manuel says. “The hustle part definitely plays a big part of it in Philadelphia. You’ve got to be their kind of player.”

Pence wanted to keep being their kind of player even after he tweaked his left knee on a freak play late in the season while running to first base. The injury was initially described as “knee soreness”; an MRI reportedly revealed a patella tendon strain. He wasn’t happy when Manuel told him he’d be stationed on the bench rather than in right field for a few days, with the playoffs rapidly approaching. (“I didn’t like it,” Pence says when asked if he agreed with the benching. “But it had to heal. It was the right decision.”)

That desire to play even at the expense of his health helped endear him to the fans and his teammates, and it serves as a counterbalance to his otherwise laid-back personality. In combination, the two elements make for a unique, oxymoronic disposition that’s equal parts effort and ease. Pence calls it “intense looseness” and “relaxed aggression.”

“Before he came here, I think we saw Hunter as this spaz who was really good just from his unorthodox throwing motion and his swing,” laughs Cole Hamels, standing in the hallway beyond the Phillies clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park, where he’s just finished another offseason workout. “You’d look at him and think, How does this guy do it? He’s just a really nice quality guy, but he has this intensity on the field that you can never take away. This guy is here to play, and he’s playing really hard. But in the clubhouse, he’s as goofy and unorthodox as his batting swing.”

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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…