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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