Hunter Pence: Sign-inspirer

Cody Pickens

Hunter Pence, who won his second World Series in three years with the Giants, is one of the quirkiest and most charismatic All-Stars in baseball, playing with an unself-conscious blend of bug-eyed intensity and unrestrained desire. This year the public persona of the 31-year-old right fielder grew exponentially with his play on the field, his motivational speeches and the appearance -- in ballparks from coast to coast -- of an inexplicable phenomenon: Hunter Pence signs.

The Mag: Did the whole sign thing blow you away when it took off?
Pence: It was extremely funny. My girlfriend, Alexis [Cozombolidis], was the one who got it started. I'm a big "Seinfeld" fan, and it started with a picture we posted of me in a New York diner holding a cup of coffee -- it wasn't the actual "Seinfeld" diner, but it reminded me of it -- with the famous quote, "These pretzels are making me thirsty." That night in Queens, some fans made some signs: "Hunter Pence Puts Ketchup on His Hot Dog" and "Hunter Pence Eats Pizza With a Fork." Those are two things New Yorkers should never do, according to "Seinfeld." I thought it would last one or two days, maybe through the Mets series, and we couldn't believe what it turned into.

When did you realize it had taken on a life of its own?
The Mets series was cool, but I thought, "OK, that was just New York." But when we went to Milwaukee and all of the right-field bleachers in Milwaukee had a ton of signs, I couldn't believe it. OK, they caught on. The next stop was Kansas City and I thought, "There's no way Kansas City has signs," and they had even more. And some really funny ones.

Do you have any favorites?
I have a ton of favorites. "Hunter Pence Picks the Hamburger in the Hot Dog Race." If you're a "Seinfeld" fan -- and I don't know if this is appropriate -- a lady held one that said "Hunter Pence is Spongeworthy." Another one was "Hunter Pence Thinks Kansas City's in Kansas."

When you're watching this happen, is it almost like an out-of-body experience?
It's the wildest thing. The other day someone tailgating at the Notre Dame football game held a sign that said "Hunter Pence Gave Us Five Stars." Someone sent me one from a concert -- I don't even know where, but the lyrics were "Are you human or are we dancer?" [from The Killers' song "Human"] -- and the sign at the concert said "Hunter Pence is Dancer."

Rare for this day and age, it's all good-natured, not mean. There's something almost old-fashioned about it.
It's more for the creative mind. Most of the time, it would be Hunter Pence doing things that were unlike their city. "Hunter Pence Doesn't Like Bratwurst" in Milwaukee. "Hunter Pence Doesn't Like Barbecue" in Kansas City. I actually started learning things about these cities from the signs.

From the outside, it seemed like the signs were in keeping with your personality. Did it feel that way to you?
Yeah, because I'm a little bit unorthodox or awkward or whatever you want to call it. I don't take myself very seriously, so I loved it. I joined in. ... I hope it didn't make me self-centered. It was like the Chuck Norris thing -- another entity, not really me.

Moving on to baseball. If someone who didn't know much about baseball asked you to describe this Giants team and how you guys won another World Series, how would you describe it?
It's tough to label us. The whole journey showed how we as a team were such a shape-shifter. There were so many changes, so many injuries, so many different people stepping up. Early in the season, Brandon Hicks was a huge part of our team. He hit like eight homers and changed a ton of games. He was a warrior for us, and it kind of passed on. Travis Ishikawa hit the game-winning homer to send us to the World Series; he was with the Pirates at the beginning of the year. I feel like we were a shape-shifter, with so many people contributing and the team never the same. And there was a lot of passion on this team.

A lot of that passion seemed to come from you and your speeches ...
You know what? You can talk and give speeches 'til you're blue in the face, but if people don't buy in, if people don't care, it's not going to matter. There was a really, really strong will on this team. There was a stubbornness and a refusal to give in.

For me, anyway, Michael Morse's pinch-hit home run that tied Game 5 against the Cardinals seemed like the moment when it was obvious you guys were going to win everything again. Did it feel like that in the dugout?
Who knows? We went on to play the Royals, and they hadn't lost a game. Destiny vs. dynasty. How do you beat destiny? In the two playoff teams I've been on with the Giants, we have been projected to lose every series. I like it that way.

Did you learn something about yourself when you started becoming the team spokesman in 2012?
Once it happened the first time, it immediately became my role. Before the game in Cincinnati in 2012 [Game 3 of the NLDS] was the first time I'd ever given a major league team a speech. Really, I didn't know I was a speaker, but I think Marco Scutaro and Javier Lopez and Brian Wilson were saying after we lost the first two games, "If we don't say something, we're done." There was a feeling beneath the surface -- a quiet. I had felt it when I was with the Phillies and I thought it was just our focus, but there was a tightness. So I just said: "Man, I don't want to lose another playoff series. That was the worst." I didn't even know what I was going to say, and I don't know how it even happened. It just happened.

Is everything you say spontaneous?
Nothing's planned. In Cincinnati, I remember being nervous. I was repeating to myself: "Believe in what you say. Believe in what you say."

People have fun with the way you play, and you've joined in. Have you always had an ability to laugh at yourself and be good-natured about the way you look when you play?
No, not really. As I've grown up I've gotten some perspective on life and come to realize I'm not that important. Things aren't really that big of a deal. That's made life so much more fun. I enjoy every day so much more just from my belief that the lighter you can be -- a carefree-ness, the sky's not falling -- as you're taking care of your tasks, it's cultivated a better life.

You poke fun at your awkwardness on huntershitters.com. Was there a time when something like "How to throw without an elbow" wasn't funny to you?
This is just a core of my personality. I've never cared how I look doing things. I love competing. I'm here to win. But I think I've actually gotten to where I care more about how I look, not while playing but maybe wearing a wristband or putting on an arm sleeve. I use one batting glove, and this year there was even a little color on it. I'm letting go.

Are the high socks a fashion statement?
No, that's 100 percent comfort. I don't want to play a sport in pants, so feeling like I'm wearing shorts is awesome. ... I'm kind of OCD about my clothes and how they feel when I'm playing.

Before you re-signed with the Giants in 2013, your physical led to you being diagnosed with Scheuermann's disease. [Ed.'s note: It's a condition that causes an increase in the rounding of the upper spine and a lack of flexibility.] How did you react to that?
It made things make a lot more sense. Earlier that spring, they measured my [thoracic] spine flexibility, and I was like off-the-charts low. They told me I have to work on flexibility, but after two days my back was locking up so bad I couldn't even swing properly. I said, "Hey, can I stop doing this?" As soon as I stopped, my back went back to feeling great. At the end of the year, they said, "Oh, this is why you couldn't do those stretches -- it's bone on bone." Coming up in baseball it's always been the same: "Oh, Hunter just does things differently. I've never seen anyone like him before."

What's the prognosis? Is it something you have to be aware of down the road?
I don't think so. You just have to be really careful reversing your car. You can't really turn around very well. They said, "Well, that's probably why your warm-up swing is so weird." But here's the way I look at it: They say I was supposed to be 6-8 but I'm 6-4, and that's a huge advantage for baseball. I don't have as big a strike zone and I have the wingspan of a 6-8 person.

You've played in 383 straight games, the longest current streak in Major League Baseball. Are you aware of your streak?
Every year is different. This year I needed some days off in the final month, but we were in a big playoff push. I don't want it to be about that. I want it to be about making the playoffs and winning the World Series. That's the only goal. But I feel like I owe as much as I can to every fan who comes to the game. I owe it to baseball. I owe it to the organization for believing in me. I owe it to them to be ready to play. I just want to play every game to win, as hard as I can. There's a part of me that thinks if I'm not playing, it's like I'm letting everyone down. I want them to know I'm there. I guess if I can physically play and I don't play, I'm leaving them hanging.

You've earned a lot of respect for playing the game as hard as possible. How do you view the attention you've gotten for that?
There are times you hit a fly ball and there's nowhere for you to go, so don't pull something. You've got to watch your body. But if you hit a grounder ... I don't know ... that's how I was taught to play and that's the way I like to play. A lot of times I'm really angry at myself for making an out and I'm running off the steam.

And sometimes that translates into your not being out.
I know infielders don't like it when you run hard. Even in the outfield, I don't like it when guys run hard. It puts a lot more pressure on you to make the play. I'm not going down without a fight.

It's even more rare for a right-handed power hitter who -- no offense -- is often off-balance when he finishes his swing.
Yeah, but a lot of times I'm off-balance falling to the first-base side. I'm the Ichiro of the right side. Morse actually asked me if I intentionally try to chop the ball into the ground when I get two strikes. He thought I was doing it on purpose. I told him, "Absolutely not," and he said, "Oh -- because I was trying it for about a week."