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 HAS A NEW NUTRITION ROUTINE designed to keep him fit and prepared for the pending baseball marathon. He’s excited about it. It’s a few days before he leaves for spring training, and we’re on our way to Butcher and Singer for lunch. In the back of a black Lincoln Town Car chartered by the Phillies, Pence outlines his exhausting health regimen. He’s had his blood tested to determine which spices and vitamins were good for his body and which should be avoided to optimize his sleep cycle. He pretty much only eats fish and chicken these days; he’s also cut out booze. Pence says the last time he had a drink was New Year’s. Just hearing about it gives me withdrawal sweats. “If I wasn’t playing baseball,” he laughs, “I wouldn’t recommend it.” Once we’re seated inside the restaurant, he orders a medium-rare filet. “I’m not against red meat,” he says, cutting me off before I can give him heat about it. Then, “You forced me into it.”

Despite this brief but delicious moment of weakness, Pence says his off-season dedication­ is meant to help rewrite last year’s script, a disappointing narrative that began with hope but ended in abject heartbreak. The Phillies, who set a club record with 102 regular-season wins, weren’t just supposed to make the playoffs. They were expected to reach the World Series and win. Another championship was assured. Everyone was convinced. When the parade was held in St. Louis instead of along Broad Street, it was hard to process. Still is.

“That team, we were so good,” Pence says over lunch, a mouthful of salad mixing with the bitter memory. Pence had just four hits against the Cardinals, as the Phillies hit a dismal .226 as a team and failed to score a single run in Game 5. “We had such a good regular season. Looking back, I really don’t like … we won so early. Look at the Cardinals. They were playing playoff games for a whole month just to get into the playoffs. They had a nothing-to-lose mentality. We won so early, the cruise control, it’s a tough thing to balance. No one wanted to be in cruise control.”

This season, he doesn’t “want the fans to have any doubt. I want to keep playing so well, I don’t want them to think, What’s happening, what’s happening?” He still hasn’t gotten over what happened against St. Louis. “It takes the wind out of you,” he says. “It took the wind out of the city. Everyone hurt after that loss.”

And here he stops eating for a moment and leans back in his chair. He’s wearing comfortable clothing—worn designer jeans and a gunboat-gray knit hoodie—but he looks uneasy. Perhaps it’s this sort of reaction that best explains why he fits in here. This is a provincial town, a place where much of our collective identity and attitude is linked to our professional sports franchises. Philadelphians have reveled in the successes of our teams, but more often we’ve suffered following their failures. We know what it’s like to be part of a community that too frequently doubles as a makeshift support group. Maybe in the end, that’s all we really need—someone­ to share our pain.

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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…