That he describes his latest viral explosion as “kind of a miracle” where “all the stars have to align,” within a moment where “you’re kind of spinning and throwing up a prayer there,” is delightfully microcosmic of him. Isn’t Hunter Pence, the man speaking about his magnificent defensive sequence, kind of a miracle himself?
Isn’t he throwing up a hyperkinetic prayer every day and night, wearing pants he rolls up because he wants a wearing-shorts effect, accompanied by a violent hack-and-hitch swing that channels a drunk in a 50-cent batting cage?
You could tell all the other Giants to stay home, all but Pence, and it’s possible 41,914 people still would come to AT&T Park and watch. They would collect their giveaway Hunter Pence Gnomes at the gate, adoring how no baseball player ever has looked more like a gnome to begin with, to the last scraggly patch of facial and back-of-scalp hair. They would interact with him at his social media event, “Pence on the Fence,” knowing him to be so tech-savvy that he routinely announces on Instagram or Twitter to catch him on Twitch playing Diablo. They would laugh between innings as he dances on the big screen to a Bee Gees song.
They would watch his one-man ballgame in awe, wishing they had his perpetual energy, his coffee-fueled high, his joyful, childlike way of playing a game that too many players slog through in a deadball era of somnolent pitching dominance. Pete Rose meets Draymond Green meets Rob Gronkowski meets scooter-riding, Voltaire-quoting, veggie-eating existentialist hip dude? That’s Hunter Pence, the most San Francisco-like athlete to play in San Francisco since … who? Joe Montana was the best quarterback ever, never needing to deflate a football, but his play talked more than he did. Barry Bonds was too bloated and megalomaniacal. Steph Curry is still in the East Bay, raising Riley with another baby on the way, not someone who’s going to photobomb a TV crew on King Street. Tim Lincecum came close in the Cy Young Award years, especially if you like to party. Colin Kaepernick is 40 miles away and not a very good quarterback right now.
That’s why this city embraces Pence. He feels like one of us as he lives among us, whether you’re trying to get rich with an app in SoMa or you’re an old hippie still pining for a summer of love instead of a random shooting on The Embarcadero. And that’s why, in the ninth inning of another punchless game Wednesday, the fans clapped and shouted his name, hoping he could save the Giants from another loss. He tried — with a single up the middle that broke up a shutout, then a slide into second base that dirtied his uniform, then a wild-eyed run around third before he was held up. They got excited because they know, if nothing else surrounding this 43-43 team, that Hunter Pence will play balls-out from the first pitch to the last out.
When that final out came, and a 4-1 loss to the Mets was official, he dropped his head and disappeared under the stands. Pence had returned the previous night from his second disabled-list stint in what seemed a religious experience, willing the Giants and Matt Cain to a 3-0 win. Suddenly, all was right for the Giants, as if singularly motivated by a combo play you’ve already seen a million times — Pence’s sliding catch in foul territory, followed by a howitzer throw that nipped Curtis Granderson at home plate.
“One of the best plays I’ve seen, the whole play,” manager Bruce Bochy said.
“Impressive,” said Cain, “something you might not see again.”
The clubhouse, the ballpark — hell, the entire city was jacked as it did the math. In the 66 games Pence missed — the first 36 with a fractured left forearm, then 30 more with left wrist tendinitis — the Giants were 30-36 total and 11-19 during the most recent layoff. With him, they were 12-6.
The very definition of a Most Valuable Player candidate, wouldn’t you say?
“Definitely emotional,” Pence said of returning to the craft he loves in the city he loves. “You never know when you’re gonna lose your opportunity to play this game. I try to cherish every game I play, and I know these guys have been grinding, so it was pretty emotional for me.”
And then, reflecting their season-long pattern, they lost. This should serve as a reminder that Hunter Pence, a wonderful player and enjoyable human being, is not a god. He couldn’t control matters when Buster Posey missed his second straight game with a tight hamstring. He couldn’t control matters when All-Star Brandon Crawford — watched from the first row by Lucius Fox, an 18-year shortstop from Florida (by way of the Bahamas) who received a $6 million bonus to sign with the Giants — tried to go viral himself with a diving stab, only to throw the ball toward McCovey Cove. Pence tried and tried again, doubling to lead off the second and later missing a home run to left field by inches.
But another fine start by Jake Peavy was wasted. Jacob deGrom, throwing 95-mph heat, was nearly unhittable. “We’ve got to find a way to get some runs. This offense is too good,” Bochy said. “When you’ve got a guy out there throwing that hard and with command of his other pitches, you need to be perfect.”
The Giants are far from that. They’ll be more competitive with Pence, of course, and more entertaining. “A shot of adrenaline — he gives you that,” Bochy said. Yet adrenaline cannot fix what ails the bullpen. And adrenaline can’t fix Nori Aoki’s fractured right fibula until August at the earliest. And adrenaline can’t stop the ongoing roller coaster. And adrenaline can’t force the front office to make a bid for pitching ace Johnny Cueto, the trade-deadline prize of the moment, when other suitors have deeper prospect pools from which to deal.
Adrenaline also could have a counterproductive result. Didn’t Pence just return from a wrist problem that followed a broken arm? Tuesday night, he dove to start his memorable catch-and-throw. Wednesday, he dove again in the right-field dirt, heaving all 6 feet, 4 inches and 225 chiseled pounds toward a foul ball he couldn’t quite grab near the side wall.
Is it possible that Pence, who started 331 straight games in a streak that ended last fall, is so hellbent on making every catch, nailing every baserunner, crushing every ball and winning every game that he’s risking another injury?
“That was the one thing we all talked about with the medical staff,” Pence said. “I can swing, I can check-swing, we had tested everything. The only thing you can’t test is landing on it with a dive or a slide. It’s probably going to be that way the whole season, so sure enough, the first game, it happened. I feel good. We’ll see.”
And yet, in another breath, he said of his spectacular catch, “I caught the ball with nothing to lose.”
Except more time on the DL.
Such is the Hunter Pence experience. You want it to last, get us through this odd-numbered year, maybe trigger another cult of witty ballpark signs that started in New York and then extended through the heartland to California, securing his place among the most unique and eccentic ballplayers of a generation. But these Giants may not be capable of responding to his spirit.