Hunter Pence is a sight to behold in the Giants’ spring training clubhouse with his crazed shock of curly blond hair proclaiming his arrival like a blare of trumpets.
A workout fiend for years, Pence doubled down on his fitness efforts over the long winter following a bitterly disappointing 2015 largely lost to injuries. A broken arm and a strained oblique kept him off the field for all but 52 games last season after he had not missed a start the previous two seasons.
It was the ultimate downer for an eternal optimist, and Pence has responded to physical weakness in 2015 with a show of physical prowess in 2016.
With the new season looming, Pence looks more the physical specimen than he has been in three-plus seasons as a Giants right fielder and spiritual leader. He’ll be 33 on April 13, an age when skills begin to erode from the grind of grueling seasons. Pence emphatically rejects that any physical erosion is lurking to bring him down again.
“I don’t remember what you’re talking about,” he said of questions about his short season. “Right now, I’m excited and I’m healthy and I’m ready to play and all I know is how good I feel right now.”
Pence likes to use words like “infinite” to describe various aspects of his charmed life. “I have infinite goals for myself (in 2016),” he said.
Without Pencian exaggeration, his absence carried infinite implications for the Giants.
“He’s so inspiring to these guys,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy of Pence. “He’s a leader, and it’s hard not to miss a player like that. We’re a different club with him in the lineup.”
Last Friday, Pence hit his second home run of the spring. Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford, the batters around him, also homered.
The Giants scored 15 runs in a powerful preview of how good they can be. Pence looked like the slugger ready to hit more than 20 home runs and drive in between 74 and 99 runs, as he did in the seasons before he was injured.
Still, he has been slowed this spring by a balky Achilles’ tendon. He sat out Sunday’s game because Bochy is trying to pace a player the Giants absolutely need daily.
I don’t remember what you’re talking about. Right now, I’m excited and I’m healthy and I’m ready to play and all I know is how good I feel right now.
Giants outfielder Hunter Pence on questions about his injury-interrupted 2015 season
Pence arrives each day for work with the good humor of a Disney character and the guns, chest and core of an Olympic wrestler. He’s a connoisseur of caffeinated drinks, which is nutty considering that this man is naturally motorized by desire, passion and yearning.
“Right now is the best time ever,” Pence said last week. “The most enthusiastic time in my life is always right now. So this is the most important moment right now.”
This has to be an alter ego that Pence has created to alternately promote and hide from his fame, right?
Well, yes and no.
When you stop Pence, he meets your glance. There is not a shade of irritation in his face. He’ll actually linger and talk and won’t walk away until he is certain the conversation is over.
This is basic human courtesy, right? Yes, but basic human courtesy is sometimes in short supply in baseball clubhouses. Pence stands out in this regard.
His teammates love him for his talent and because he’s generous in sharing his undying love for the game and his teammates. Pence is prone to public gestures that are unlike other ballplayers who work overtime to hide their emotions and vulnerabilities.
Google “Pence and Disney and marriage proposal” and you will see video of Pence on bended knee proposing to his longtime fiancée, Alexis Cozombolidis, in December at Disney World in Florida.
It was a touching and a joyful personal conclusion to a trying professional year.
Right now is the best time ever. The most enthusiastic time in my life is always right now. So this is the most important moment right now.
But if you ask Pence about that, his injury struggles and his motivations, the huge Pence persona takes all questions where specifics go to die.
“There is only winning and learning, in my opinion,” he said.
What did you learn from last season?
“I learned that right now I’m feeling really good and I’m excited to play today,” he said.
Where did you get that relentlessly positive attitude?
“(Pause) I don’t know,” he said.
From your family? Your friends?
“It just is. It’s just in me.”
What goals have you set for this season?
… (I’m approaching it) with every bit of enthusiasm and fiber of my being that I can win each game and to enjoy that process,” he said.
He looked me right in the eye and, with that twinkle in his, said, “Did you catch that?”
Not really, but it sounded cool and brought a smile to my face.
It’s Hunter Pence’s story, and he’s sticking to it.