Passion for baseball follows Pence off the field
Everything from fans to video games traced to love for the game
LOS ANGELES -- Between the time he boarded the chartered bus to LAX and the chartered plane to Philadelphia on Wednesday, Phillies right fielder Hunter Pence opened the Twitter application on his cell phone and sent a message to his fans:
"NOBODY PANIC! We can come back. #Letsgoeat #FreeShane."
The first part of the message referenced Wednesday's 9-8 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, when the Phillies overcame a six-run deficit to finish their 10-game road trip at an all-time best 9-1. #FreeShane referenced teammate Shane Victorino, who Major League Baseball suspended three games for his role in Friday's bench-clearing brawl in San Francisco.
Every Phillies fan with an Internet connection seems to know that. But a quick crash course for the folks not in the know: Pence scored the winning run in the 10th inning of a 6-5 victory over the Pirates on July 31 at Citizens Bank Park. Moments before Pence doubled to get on base, Victorino told his teammates to hurry up and win the game because he was hungry. So afterward, when Phillies broadcaster Gary Matthews asked Pence what was going through his mind as he rounded third base, he replied, "Good game. Let's go eat."
Fans have put it on T-shirts, written about it on blogs and message boards and have been sending messages to Pence through Twitter with the #letsgoeat hashtag.
Pence has run with it.
"I didn't have the intention for that to go off, but now that it has, it's been a lot of fun," Pence said Wednesday. "I like it. It's a good, positive thing to be cheering for. They've been yelling it at me, even though we're on the road. 'Hey, Hunter. Let's go eat.' I'm like, 'Yeah, let's do it. Let's get this win. Let's go eat.'"
Pence is enjoying his honeymoon with his new team. The Phillies are 11-1 since the Houston Astros traded him to Philadelphia on July 29. Houston had won just 11 of its last 40 games before Pence got traded. He is hitting .347 (17-for-49) with three doubles, three home runs, nine RBIs, a .389 on-base percentage and a .592 slugging percentage since the trade. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel loves Pence because of the balance he has brought the lineup, and teammates love him because of the energy he has brought to the clubhouse and field.
Fans love him because he seems to be having a heck of a lot of fun out there.
A few hours before Pence doubled and scored the winning run July 31, nine children ran onto the field for the pregame ceremonies at Citizens Bank Park. A little girl ran to right field to await Pence. He high-fived her upon his arrival, then leaned over and whispered in her ear.
Both of them turned toward the fans in the right-field seats and waved.
The crowd roared back at them.
Both of them then turned toward the fans along the right-field line and waved.
The crowd roared back at them, too. The reaction got the girl so excited she started jumping up and down.
"It's pretty cool being on the field at a home game," Pence said. "I never take that experience for granted. I love to look around and see where I'm at. It's something as a kid you dream of. So sometimes you take a step back and enjoy the moment. So I like them to look at the fans and give them a wave and look at the reciprocation they get. I want them to have that same moment. I know if I was a kid, I'd want that. Sometimes they're kind of scared or shy. I'm like, 'Look, check these people out. They've got your back.'"
Pence genuinely seems to enjoy interacting with fans, which is a big reason why he joined Twitter last summer.
"You have a voice to the fans," he said.
He still enjoys connecting the old fashioned way, too. A few years ago at Spring Training with the Astros, fans asked Pence for his autograph while he was walking into the clubhouse.
"I'll come back later and sign," he said.
Fans have heard promises like that before, so they soon left. But Pence returned as promised to find nobody there.
He was dejected.
"I try to stay true to my word," he said. "It's a little more difficult here, because there are so many and they're everywhere. But if I give you my word [that] I'm going to come back, I'll come back."
Enthusiastic. Energetic. High motor.
These are some one of the things his new teammates have said about Pence.
"God just made me this way," he said. "I play with more emotion than is probably necessary or needed, but that's just who I am."
Pence gets to the clubhouse early every day. (He showed up at AT&T Park nearly seven hours before the first pitch last Thursday against the San Francisco Giants.) He studies film. He hits in the cage. He works out nearly an hour after every game.
Pence led a pack of Astros who showed up voluntarily at Minute Maid Park last winter for offseason workouts. That was something that had not happened before, not even during the glory days of Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman.
"I'm a big believer in 'chance favors the prepared mind,'" Pence said.
Pence's locker was next to Biggio's during his rookie season in 2007. He gleaned as much from him as he could, but he also identified with Darin Erstad, who played for the Astros from 2008-09. Pence, who grew up in Arlington, Texas, watched Erstad a lot when the Angels played the Rangers. He remembered Erstad running into the outfield wall and playing hard from the first pitch to the last out.
Erstad's style of play left an impression upon him.
"I looked up to Pete Rose a lot, too," Pence said. "I love Pete Rose. I see a lot of that in [Chase] Utley."
Roy Halladay has called Utley "the Derek Jeter of the National League" because of his preparation and dedication to doing everything the right way. Pence said he noticed that immediately upon his arrival. He recalled Victorino telling a few teammates recently how he almost missed the bag while running the bases.
Utley wasn't happy to hear it.
"The game isn't over until the last out is made," Utley reminded everybody within listening distance. "You've got to keep focused no matter what."
Pence received the message loud and clear.
"I think hearing that is going to make me a better ballplayer," he said.
Even when he is away from the ballpark, Pence seems to be doing something he can take back to the field.
He plays chess, although he found few willing participants in Houston. Pence recently asked Halladay if he played. He said he did, so Pence is thinking of picking up a chess board for the team's flights.
"I don't want to intrude on his time, but that might be my next opponent," he said. "I love chess, because it stimulates your mind in a similar way that baseball does. You have to respond quickly to figure out what they're trying to do to you. I think the game of baseball, being as mental as it is, it's another way to get better."
Pence reads for the same reasons, too.
"I don't read stories. I don't read for pleasure," he said. "I read to enhance my mind and advance my mental strength."
Pence enjoys Malcom Gladwell books like "Outliers" and "Tipping Point." He has read Harvey Dorfman's "The Mental Game of Baseball," "The Mental Keys to Hitting," and Anthony Robbins' "Unlimited Power." He has read books about the brain, how it works and what it can accomplish.
Then there is Napoleon Hill's "Think and Grow Rich," which is his favorite. He has read the book cover to cover three times, but picks up and reads difference passages every day to keep focused.
But when Pence doesn't feel like picking up a book or setting up the chess board, he might fire up "Call of Duty" and other video games like "StarCraft" and "World of Warcraft."
"You have to have a similar focus in video games as you do in baseball," he said. "It's like a coordination with your fingers. You have to get into that zone. I think playing the guitar or playing the piano might be a better hobby than playing video games, because those also require a similar focus. But there is a theory in 'Outliers' about the 10,000 hours. I think those are parts of the little preparations that make you better."
All of these things are related.
Pence loves baseball. He loves everything about it. That is why he interacts with the young girl on the field, returns to sign the autographs he promised to sign, shows up early and leaves late at the ballpark, reads books to sharpen his mind and searches for a competitor at the chess board.
"I compete for a living," he said. "When I go home, I try to do something else I enjoy, which is competing."
So far, the Phillies have seen the best of Pence. He is doing everything they hoped he would do -- and possibly more. They hope it continues for another three months with the Phillies ultimately holding another parade down Broad Street.
Pence would have plenty to tweet about then.
Let's go eat? Absolutely.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.