Hunter Pence hustled in to take batting practice, exhibiting that familiar energy as fans cheered. He smiled and raised his cap high in the air.
This is just the start of spring training, and it’s clear Pence is a crowd favorite for San Francisco once more. And the outfielder is in his element again as he approaches his 37th birthday. The Giants opened their gates to fans for the first full-squad workout and Pence was as popular as ever after a year away. “We all noticed that,” new manager Gabe Kapler said of the rousing ovations.
“It’s great,” Pence said. “It’s extremely exciting for me to be back. It’s definitely fun with a lot of new faces and a lot of new staff. I’m just thrilled to be back, thrilled to see the fans, every day getting to do something I love to do so much, obviously. Especially with how things went — it’s part of the game, the nature of the game — I really appreciate every bit of it, every little thing. It’s a joy to be a part of. It’s definitely special to wear the black and orange. I’ve been here so long.”
He always believed he would be back with the Giants — it just took a season-long detour with the Texas Rangers for this reunion to come together. Pence reinvented his swing during 2018 with San Francisco, played winter ball in the Dominican Republic to further perfect it, then batted .297 with 18 homers, 17 doubles and 59 RBIs over 83 games with the Rangers.
He was part of the Giants’ 2012 and ’14 World Series champion teams and now gets another chance with the young club during a year of major transition and change.
“I thought it would be last year, but it’s this year,” Pence said of his Bay Area return.
He signed a $3 million, one-year contract this month that includes the potential for an additional $2.5 million in various roster and performance bonuses.
Pence is already providing a key veteran presence on the field and in the clubhouse as he prepares for his 14th major league season, spending some time with young pitcher Tyler Beede after Monday’s workout at Scottsdale Stadium.
“I love sharing but I also love learning,” Pence said. “A lot of times the young guys have a lot to teach us because they have new perspectives and the new coaches that they’ve learned from are so much different than what I grew up with. There’s so much more information out there. To me it’s about growing together and having that growth mindset and that culture of playing with passion and playing smart and getting a little better every day. Those are the things I look forward to doing.”
Kapler probably couldn’t say it much better himself. He is counting on the insight and strong voices of proven players like Pence.
The two chatted behind the batting cage on day one and, like everybody, Kapler loves and appreciates Pence’s energy and passion. Even just his enthusiasm running in from a back field or the batting cages. Or bunting on the first day when asked to do so.
“He’s a pretty inspirational guy,” Kapler said. “I think he stands for the right things. He’s very comfortable being a little bit different and I personally have a lot of respect for that. I think he was one of the real competitors in the batting cage on day one, really getting after it. We saw him drive some baseballs, which was really encouraging. But it was that mindset that led to that outcome. It’s really nice to have Hunter around for that reason because he makes people better. That’s what we want, players who are making their teammates better.”
In December, Pence served as best man in teammate Pablo Sandoval’s wedding. Their lockers are side-by-side now in San Francisco’s sparkling new spring training clubhouse as Sandoval, too, begins another stint with the team after he was the 2012 World Series MVP.
Both the veterans and young players realize what their familiar faces mean to the group.
“It can only help,” shortstop Brandon Crawford said. “Just from the experience. You never know, you go to the playoffs this year with a fairly young team and a bunch of guys that haven’t been there before, it helps to have experienced guys like us. ... Whether it’s helping them out by talking to them about what to expect or just going into a season, not necessarily a postseason, or maybe it’s going through a funk, just to help them out in some sort of way can always be beneficial for younger guys.”
Re-inventing himself was part of the process for Pence to prolong his career as he hoped, and he didn’t mind one bit investing so much in it.
“It wasn’t necessarily hard, it just took effort and time,” Pence said. “When you’re doing something you love to do, it’s like a labor of love is no labor at all. I’m having a blast, so it was a joy.”