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.

 

Hunter Pence wants to please.

He’d like to accommodate the request, he really would, it’s just that he’s not sure about entering a room full of men and women he’s just met, only to immediately whip off some of his clothes and stand around bare-chested while everyone gawks and snaps photos—which is, ironically, exactly what he did shortly after being traded from Houston to Philadelphia last season. During a memorable charity fashion show held by new teammate Shane Victorino, Pence went all Right Said Fred on the catwalk, ripping off his t-shirt and firing it into the stunned crowd. It was a ballsy thing to do—to bare so much, so soon, to a community that has leveled athletes with far more tenure for far less dodgy displays. One quick swing of Philly’s well-dented criticism wrecking ball and Pence could have ended up on the he’s-not-our-type rubble pile, along with so many other players.

[See exclusive video of Hunter Pence on CSNPhilly.com]

It didn’t go that way, of course. The fans loved it. The media loved it. Everyone seemed to love it. But that was different, Pence says. That was a lark. That was something to make his new teammates, who were peeking out from behind the curtain and cackling like they’d just been dosed with nitrous, laugh with him and at him. That was, as Pence says—and is—a goof. This? This is a magazine photo shoot in a windowless room of the Citizens Bank Park basement. Even though the art director would like to piggyback on that unforgettable half-Monty moment, Pence will pass. “I’m sorry, guys,” he says. “I just can’t do it.”

He apologizes several times. But after he dons a gray throwback Phillies uniform made from what appears to be super-scratchy Civil War-era surplus wool, the shoot literally starts to click. By the time it’s over, there are hugs and back-claps. It’s as though Hunter Pence has suddenly become the mayor of a very small town.

That Pence could so easily win over so many people makes sense, if only because that’s precisely what he did upon arriving in Philly. How he did it, on the other hand, is much harder to figure. It can be difficult to determine who’s a Philly guy and who isn’t. Hustle and grit and talent help, but aren’t guarantees of approval. There’s no pattern or formula to who is and isn’t rejected here. Just know, as you almost certainly do, that Pence was accepted so quickly and completely that he might have set some sort of record for a town that makes it a point of pride not to swoon for a player until a proper vetting process—which usually includes a few swift kicks to the ego—is complete.

With Pence, there was none of that. A short film about his time in the Phillies uniform thus far would go something like this: He came to Philly. He hit the ball. He went to eat. The fawning populace drooled. Fin.

Even more remarkable is that the lead actor in this feel-good drama hails from Texas. Pence was born in Fort Worth and played his high-school and college ball in Arlington, a short drive west on I-30 from Dallas, a city Philadelphians have long been conditioned to loathe. And before coming to Philly, Pence had only played professionally in Houston. Remarkably, his background doesn’t seem to matter. You get the sense that he could mosey around Rittenhouse Square with spurs sparking the sidewalk and Phillies fans would still beg him for a quick photo.

“The spirit of Philadelphia, I didn’t understand it until I got up here,” he says. In Houston, his former teammate Michael Bourn, who’d played for the Phillies, once said to him, “Man, if you played for Philly, they would love you.” Pence asked him why.

“I don’t know,” Bourn replied. “They just would.”

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

  • 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…