How about those Giants? How about that Hunter Pence? He has emerged on the big stage.
Rusty Pendergrass, who was a scout for the Astros in 2004, fell in love with UT-Arlington outfielder Hunter Pence that spring. Some scouts couldn’t overlook certain things. Like a little hitch in his swing. Like how he ran kind of funny. Like how he just didn’t look natural doing the things really good players have to do.
Instead of focusing solely on the negatives, Rusty, who now works for the Diamondbacks, looked at the other side of Pence. That is, he was extremely productive. He had power and a quick bat. He also worked relentlessly. Rusty didn’t know how good he was going to be, but he was absolutely certain that Hunter would take advantage of every last ounce of talent.
He liked how Hunter’s dad, Howard, made sacrifices so the kid could have every opportunity to succeed. Pence bought books on nutrition and weight-lifting, studied everything from tracking fly balls to hitting off a tee.
“I just started reading books,” he said. “My dad traded a watch someone had given him for a guy to give me five weight-training lessons. I did whatever he taught me.”
The Astros didn’t have a first-round pick in 2004, and Rusty convinced his bosses to take Hunter the first chance they could. He ended up going 23rd in the second round, 64th overall.
Hunter signed quickly ($575,000) and played 51 games in rookie ball that first year. While others were holding out for more money, Hunter was on the fast track to the big leagues. If he lost a dollar or two by signing quickly, he has more than made up for it. More on that later.
He flew through the minor leagues, getting to Double-A Corpus Christi by his third season and to the major leagues by his fourth. He played just a handful of games in Triple-A before making his Major League debut in 2007. He made his first All-Star appearance in 2009.
One of the things the Astros liked about having Darin Erstad in 2008 was that it gave Hunter a role model. Erstad was tightly wound, too. Erstad is a workaholic, too. Hard work isn’t a negative. One of Pence’s high school friends was Brian Werner, whose father, Don, has had a variety of jobs in baseball, including minor league manager and roving instructor.
“Don would stay after school every day and show us little things,” Pence said. “He’d throw us batting practice and hit grounders. I didn’t have a car, so I was stuck at the field. I decided in high school this was going to be my dream and I was going to sell out. I was going to cover every base I could. Whatever I had to do, I was going to do it. I could have put more time into studies, but I decided baseball was what I wanted to do. I was going to aim for the sky.”
Howard pushed some, too.
“He sacrificed so I could go everywhere to play baseball,” Pence said. “He’d also pick on me. If he didn’t think I was working hard enough he’d say, ‘Do you want me to sign you up for piano lessons?’ ”
Is that true, Howard?
“Uh, yeah,” he said. “I’d tell him we could sign up for piano lessons first thing Monday.”
Did he sell a watch to pay for Hunter’s weight-lifting sessions?
“Yep,” Howard said. “We had three kids in sports — two in baseball, one in gymnastics. It was costing around $10,000 a year for each of them, and we had to find some creative ways to cover the costs.
“That’s not the best one. Did Hunter tell you about the dogs?”
“Hunter has two dog eyes,” Howard said.
Right. Two dog eyes.
“We had four cocker spaniel females that we bred,” Howard said, “and we’d get $600-$800 a pup. When the kids helped, we gave them the money. When Hunter was in junior college, his eyes were really bad, and the kids gave all their puppy money to pay for Hunter to fly to Monterrey for Lasik surgery.”
When the Giants eliminated the Reds in Game 5 of a National League Division Series on Thursday afternoon, Pence was at the center of a wild clubhouse celebration.
His teammates were chanting his name and yelling, “Glue! Glue! Glue!”
His speech to the Giants before Game 3 turned into a rallying cry and perhaps a turning point. It’s a sweet place to be. He batted just .219 after the Giants acquired him on July 31st.
Knowing Hunter, he so badly wanted to impress his new teammates that he all kind of pressure on himself to make a good impression. He ended up making a great impression, but not by anything he did on the field.
Now he’s four victories from his first World Series. He’d dreamed of being in this position for the Astros, but baseball is also a business. Two trades later, he’s exactly where he’d hoped to be.