LOS ANGELES – Hunter Pence(notes) ambled past on his way to a baseball game Tuesday night, across the dugout and up the stairs and onto the field, where the Philadelphia Phillies would play the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"There he goes now," he said and shook his head, like the whole notion of a Hunter Pence could not be more foreign to him.
Not here, not in an era when ballplayers seem bred from an assembly line and raised in a Tom Emanski video, their edges ground clean and predictable. For every Youkilis, there are 20-some Theriots.
In form and style, Pence is more erector set than conveyor belt.
"You'll never see another Hunter Pence," Rollins said, "and that's the truth. I mean, you could say unorthodox, but that doesn't begin to describe it."
A native Texan whose father incentivized baseball practice by threatening piano lessons, Pence has taken a seemingly unwilling body and turned it into a ballplayer. It moves in unusual directions. It catches somewhere short of full range. It lunges where it is supposed to glide, and jerks where it is supposed to feather, and then it hits 3-something and plays its way into another All-Star game and becomes the final part to what the Phillies believe is a World Series machine.
You know, all things considered, Pence said, "The piano would be an awesome addition."
Meanwhile, the world is short one very earnest pianist who'd put his head down, choke up an inch on the keys and swing as hard as he could.
"It's what I got," he said, "and I try to make the best of it."
As a result, no one plays the game quite like him, and no one looks quite like him playing the game, and no one can quite describe what they're seeing in him, though everyone does seem to love him. He was the face of the Houston Astros until 12 days ago, the fan base there sending him away with tears. He arrived in Philadelphia to bat fifth behind Ryan Howard(notes) to a standing ovation, an experience Pence called "surreal."
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He's played 11 games for the Phillies and they've won 10 of them. He's batted .356, hit two home runs and driven in seven.
After 5½ big league seasons, it's not the production that surprises people anymore, however. It's that he runs as if his knees are lashed together with piano wire, that he hits like a 9-year-old attacking a piñata, and that he throws like he's wearing a straitjacket. And yet he's reasonably fast for a man 6-foot-4, stealing 25 bases over the past two seasons. And yet his career batting average is .291 and rising, and has 88 home runs over the past 3½ seasons. And yet his arm is a strong and accurate weapon in right field, accumulating 41 assists since the start of 2008.
Many scouts gauge players over three basic categories: tools, production and what they call "action," or the ease with which they employ those tools. Think "grace."
"And then," Pence says with a grin, "here's this goofy guy who gets it done."
That would be him; gracious, engaging, energetic, frantic him.
"There's opportunity in baseball, I hope, for both," he said.
He plays like baseball is some new and wonderful game he discovered yesterday, substituting passion for everybody else's notion of mechanics. Now at the top of his game and the middle of the Phillies' lineup, he simply never trimmed off the imperfections.
"He's kinda unorthodox," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, using everyone's favorite word.
Manuel recalled people wondering whether Carl Yastrzemski could hit out of his stance, or if Stan Musial's feet weren't too close together.
"I'm an old hitting coach," he said. "When I see someone who can really hit, I'm smart enough to leave them alone."
Don Mattingly, whose swing was so gorgeous scouts regularly wept, considered Pence for a moment.
"First word?" he said. "Rough."
Then he added what everyone adds, most often with a swaying head and a smile.
"He gets it done," he said.
A major league scout watched him over nine innings recently and called him, "Refreshing. He's fun to watch. One of my favorites. Maybe it's a good thing nobody ever tried to fix him."
They did, here and there. And Pence occasionally tried some new things. But, he'd always go back to what worked, to a style and pace that were uniquely his, always carrying a personality that Manuel said "brings that glitter and glow" to a clubhouse.
That it's a new clubhouse, a first-place clubhouse, hardly changes a thing.
"I still wake up with the same thing on my mind," Pence said. "In Houston, they were like, 'What are you talking about?' But every day I'd wake up with the World Series on my mind. It's my ultimate dream, my driving force. I might have been a little farther away in Houston, but I was still reaching for it, just like here.
"Hey, there's going to be some Goliaths smashing heads. There's other Goliaths out there. And it's going to be the most exciting two months of my life."
And just like everything else, Pence will do it his way, the only way he knows how.
Whatever that is.
From the bottom dugout step, Rollins watched him go. That body, that game, that desire, he still can hardly believe it. But he has reached a somewhat bemused conclusion regarding this Hunter Pence.
"It's all tailored to him," he said.
- Hunter Pence