Hunter Pence is Philly style

Posted: August 10, 2011

THE BOY WAS NAMED, Howard Pence said, after his wife read some scriptures about "The Mighty Hunter of the Lord."

His middle name was a nod to Hunter's great-great-grandfather Andrew Larsen, owner of two Wisconsin farms, husband to a 5-foot woman who was three-quarters Blackfoot Indian.

So there you have it. The roots of Hunter Andrew Pence's gait, the crazy-legged way Philly's newest favorite son approaches just about any physical activity, traces to the earliest inhabitants of this country, even before baseball was deemed its pastime.

"She could shoot guns, she could run, she could do anything," Howard Pence was saying as his wife maneuvered their son's car and belongings toward Philadelphia yesterday. "He was a great big Dane, big hands, 6-3, which was huge back then. And strong."

His 28-year-old son is a hybrid of those two genetic influences, his breathtaking speed and almost mystical power apparent early on, when Hunter Pence habitually competed with and against Howie, a brother 3 years older, and his friends.

"They were small, skinny kids," Howard Pence said of his sons. "But they weren't weak. I remember when Hunter was 14 he hit a ball off this big kid really far. And the kid kept looking at him like, 'No way did this just happen.' "

You might have seen that face last weekend, when Pence reached out for a pitch thrown by San Francisco's Madison Bumgarner and, practically on his knees, launched a ball into the leftfield seats. It was an unusual way to go yard, but then again usual is a modifier that might never have been attached to Hunter Pence's name.

He doesn't catch usual, he doesn't throw usual, he doesn't swing usual and he sure doesn't run usual. Unless the year is 1948. Whether you have HD or not, Pence always should appear on your screen in black and white, for everything about him, right down to his socks, harkens back to the day when players had names like Ducky and Gabby.

"I think it was actually a blessing - my dad didn't know much about baseball," he told WIP's Rob Ellis and Paul Jolovitz during an interview over the weekend. "Me and my brother both loved it. So growing up he just kind of let us do what we do. Ultimately baseball is a fluid game. And it's about being an athlete. And if you get too mechanical, sometimes you can take away a kid's natural knack for hitting and skill. It's what I came up with as a kid and it's worked."

In the 10 games he has played with the Phillies before last night, Pence drove in seven runs, scored five and batted .366. Five of his 15 hits were for extra bases, and - this is the most important part - he seems to have triggered an offense that has been dormant for much of the season.

Some of that can be traced to the dynamics of a batting order. Some of it can be traced to Pence's DNA.

"He'd beat you, beat you, beat you at any game," said Howard Pence, 66, once a Texas cattleman and now involved in the oil business. "And if he didn't? If it was a video game he'd stay up all night so he could. Baseball, he'd watch video all night. He'll outwork anyone. He's pretty much a horse."

Everyone in Houston, it seems, has this kind of a signature Hunter Pence story. Warming up in the outfield between innings in his early days with the Astros, he dived to catch a ball, busting up veteran teammates like Craig Biggio and Brad Ausmus.

Once, when Pence came into the dugout boiling over a bad game, Ausmus instructed him to take it out in the batting cage.

"I got it," proclaimed a sweaty Pence upon returning.

Yeah, right, thought Ausmus. "I want to see two hits tomorrow night," Ausmus told him.

Pence had three.

"I hate you," joked Ausmus.

For years, managers, scouts, teammates and even his own blood have suggested Pence could be even better if he ratcheted it down just a little. So over the winter of 2010, Pence picked up a book touting the virtues of a relaxed athletic approach.

He was hitting .210 in early May of that season when he threw the book out. "I've got to play angry," he told Houston Chronicle columnist Richard Justice, who relayed this story. "I've got to swing the bat as hard as I can. It's the way I've always played."

As he found his way to I-95 and the final leg of his journey from Texas to Philadelphia yesterday, Howard Pence turned from interviewed to interviewer. He asked what Philly thought of his boy, knowing full well the answer would be the same as when it was asked in Houston. We love hustle in this town, he was told, love guys who are open books, who channel our enthusiasm.

We love players who should always be filmed in black and white.

"Then you're going to like him a lot," Howard Pence said.

Truth is, we already do.

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