Hunter Pence's road to the majors

Living the dream: "Baseball was the only thing I loved," said Hunter Pence. "I was going to give everything I had."
Living the dream: "Baseball was the only thing I loved," said Hunter Pence. "I was going to give everything I had." (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 21, 2011

ARLINGTON, Texas - His friends in this city between Dallas and Fort Worth, a hybrid of North Texas' boom-and-bust history, talk often of Hunter Pence's assets, a Boy Scout litany of humility, intelligence, determination, strength, and loyalty.

But as they also make clear, the story of the newest Phillies favorite is also noteworthy for what he didn't have - the advantages money can buy a baseball prospect.

Pence's father, Howard, whose own athletic ambitions were thwarted by polio, supported his family ably, but for the consultant in the wildly fluctuating oil business, some times were better than others.

"It's either feast or famine," explained Howie Pence, 31, Hunter's older brother. "You'll make a bunch of money at one time and then you won't make anything, sometime for years. When the famine comes, you try to just survive."

When a high school coach decided Pence needed contact lenses, the player at first couldn't afford them. The select leagues that were summer showcases for baseball talent were, with costs ranging from $1,000 to $3,000, too expensive. Sometimes even a new glove was a strain.

Now that Pence, 28, a two-time all-star, is rich and famous, old friends don't mind telling the story of the day a decade ago when his father visited an indoor baseball facility here and knocked on the door of Cover All Bases owner Chris Gay's office.

Pence, who'd played the outfield his first three years at Arlington High, was moving to shortstop as a senior.

"Hunter just had this big old 13-inch outfielder's glove," Gay recalled. "His dad walked in and said, 'My son's going to be the shortstop for the school down the street and I just can't afford to get him a glove.' He was really a nice man. He said he'd clean the place or do whatever it took to pay for it. I just got him a new glove and told him not to worry about it."

Gay later allowed Pence free run of the cages, and when the single-minded youngster tired of hitting off a machine, threw him pitches.

"Arlington was a great atmosphere," Pence said Friday, fidgeting in front of his locker in Washington's Nationals Park. "I had a great setup there. Chris Gay, they opened doors for me and allowed me to go in there. I don't know if I could have afforded that. So I look at Chris as a second father to me."

Whatever he lacked growing up in a neat rancher on Rockland Street - in a residential area miles from the glass office towers, stadiums, and theme park that line I-30 - Pence compensated for.

Employing the wide-eyed, headfirst fervor Philadelphians admire - a combination of blue-collar grit and childlike innocence - he practically willed his way to the big leagues.

"Baseball was the only thing I loved," Pence recalled. "I made this decision that I was going to give everything I had to have this opportunity. And somehow it came to reality."

The small boy who loved math and Nintendo, played chess, and dabbled in street hockey, basketball, and football soon devoted himself entirely to baseball. Long before a high school growth spurt pushed him well over 6 feet, long before this "defensive liability" found a position, long before the boy who was always too focused on baseball to get a steady girlfriend began dating a Houston cheerleader, Pence was determined to be a major-leaguer.

"There wasn't a lot besides baseball," said Matt Ritter, a longtime friend and Arlington High teammate. "He didn't go out with a lot of friends, didn't do a lot of things. He focused on the game. Baseball was his life."

He whacked away at the batting tee in his backyard. Eventually, given free access to Gay's cages, the righty-hitting Pence blistered his hands day and night, refining that hell-bent, hyperbolic hack of his.

After a successful but hardly glory-filled high school career, he spent a year DH'ing at Texarkana Junior College, then learned the outfield at University of Texas-Arlington, living at home while he did. In two years there, despite a gruesome hip injury, he transformed himself from a 40th-round draft pick (Milwaukee 2002) into a second-rounder (Houston 2004).

And somewhere along the way, he might have paused to take a breath.

"His motor never stops," said David Nix, his high school coach. "You hear people say all the time that this guy or the other was the first on the field for practice and the last to leave. Well, Hunter literally was. He always wanted to do something. That's his personality. There's nothing fake about him at all. He's full-speed all the time. "

Always baseball

"The Hunter Pence who grew up here," said Ryan Patterson, perhaps his oldest friend, "was just a smaller version of the guy you see today in Philadelphia."

Almost all the stories about Pence's boyhood here involve baseball. It's as if the intensely focused towhead were invisible beyond the baselines.

"I've known him since seventh grade and all he's ever said about himself was, 'I'm going to be a major-leaguer,' " said Ritter.

He was born at All Saints Hospital in Fort Worth on April 13, 1983, early in a major-league season that ended the same way many predict - especially after Pence's late-July arrival - this season will, with a World Series appearance by the Phillies.

The boy constantly tagged after his older brother. His father played catch with him from the time he could walk and pushed him toward baseball, threatening him with piano lessons if he resisted. He didn't.

"Whatever mistakes my father made with me," said Howie, who helps run his brother's Hunter Pence Baseball Academy in Houston, "he corrected when it came to Hunter. They have a great relationship."

At 3, Pence played on a team with Howie in a coach-pitch league in Colorado, where the family moved briefly.

Because his brother, a pitcher who would progress to double A before an injured arm ended his career, eventually put aside other sports and focused on baseball, Pence did the same.

"When he first came in as a freshman, you could tell right then that he was going to be a good hitter," said Nix, who is still Arlington's varsity coach. "He was just a little guy, maybe 5-6."

He and Patterson had joined several of the youth leagues that proliferate in Texas' baseball-friendly climate. Pence liked to hit right from the start. Defense came later.

"You couldn't tell when he got here [in ninth grade] that he was going to be a star," said Nix. "He had a good high-school bat. He had good speed. The only downside to Hunter back then, and his college coach will tell you the same, was finding a spot for him defensively."

He had a growth spurt before his junior year and blossomed that season as the best hitter for the mediocre Colts, whose ball field, which is 425 feet to straightaway center, honors Pence with a right-field billboard.

"His senior year I was probably a little unfair to him," said Nix. "He was the best athlete out there, so I put him at short. . . . It didn't help him. He didn't get that much attention [from college or pro scouts] coming out."

Gay suggested it was Pence's finances that prevented him from getting drafted or receiving a Division I scholarship. He hadn't exposed himself in the increasingly important and expensive world of select ball.

"He didn't have any money," said Gay. "That's why he didn't get drafted. Patterson is the one who took him down to Texarkana. He told the coach there, 'Hey, I got this buddy who can play.' And the coach said, 'Bring him along.' "

In a high school of 3,000 students, Pence was well-liked but hardly a luminary. A good student, he took advanced-placement courses and earned a perfect score on the math portion of Texas' pregraduation exam.

"He really liked math, which is probably why he got into chess," said Howie. "He wasn't a kid who was going to read a lot of literature."

Yearbook photos show a confident-looking Pence smiling beneath blond bangs. The only activities listed besides baseball are chess club and the Colt Cavalry.

"I like chess but I really don't remember being in chess club," he said. "The Colt Cavalry, yeah, I did that senior year. It involved sort of running around with a flag at football games. I have a lot of energy."

Nix noticed early that Pence also had vision problems. The player resisted a suggestion he get contacts. They were expensive and he wasn't sure he'd like them.

"He couldn't see, and that was hurting him defensively," said Nix. "But he could see good enough to hit a baseball. I couldn't understand that."

He eventually got the contacts, but before a game his senior year he lost one.

"He only had one," said Ritter. "He told me not to tell the coach because he wanted to play. He ended up going 3 for 4. . . . That's how good an athlete he was, how focused he was. He just needed to see the ball a little bit and he could hit it."

Pence wanted to stay in the neighborhood and go to the University of Texas-Arlington, whose baseball program was gaining prominence. But, according to current coach Darin Thomas, the hitting instructor then, the team had several returnees and no available scholarships.

"[Now-deceased coach Clay] Gould told his mom and dad that if he went somewhere for a year, we'd take him after that because some spots would open up."

Major-league bat

Pence followed Patterson, who now plays for the independent-league St. Paul Saints, to Texarkana. There Pence increased his weight-room work, added bulk, and, used primarily as a DH, abandoned the hitting crouch he favored. The shift allowed him to better leverage his 6-4 frame. He also hardened a hard nose.

"There isn't much to do in Texarkana, and that was good for me," he said. "There's where I learned a lot of this mentality I have. Because they were kind of these hard-nosed Pete Rose type of baseball. How to hustle. I remember they said we can't control whether we win or lose but we can always control our hustle."

Late in his year there, money again became an issue. With a week left on campus, his scholarship's meal plan expired. He and Patterson had no food and only a jar of change with which to acquire any.

"We were worried about losing the weight we'd worked so hard to add," said Patterson. "We survived on the dollar menus at Burger King and McDonald's."

Still a one-dimensional player, Pence didn't sign with the Brewers, who made him their 40th-round choice that June. He moved on to the University of Texas-Arlington, where he joined a talented team that also included Ryan Roberts, now a tattooed infielder with the Diamondbacks.

Thomas knew what UTA was getting. He'd scouted Pence at Arlington High. In the boy's junior year, an Arlington teammate's father, Orioles minor-league catching instructor Don Werner, told him Pence had a major-league bat.

"He was very tall and wiry when he got here," said Thomas. "He could really run, and there was lots of energy and effort and hustle. He was searching for a natural position. But at bat, he swung like he was mad at the baseball."

Curiously, no one - not Nix, Thomas, or Gay - ever tried to change that all-or-nothing swing that is Pence's trademark.

"If it ain't broke," said Nix, "I wasn't going to fix it."

After a few months of intense outfield training, Pence turned himself into a good defender. UTA coaches had him alter his elbow-down throwing style and, as always, "Hunter outworked everyone," said Thomas.

"Darin Thomas likes to joke that when Hunter got there he might have been the worst outfielder ever," said Gay, himself a UTA alum. "But by the time he left, he was unbelievable. That's why people love him. He's a blue-collar worker. He's like Jim Thome. Hunter is the same kind of worker. But he's got freakish talent, too."

That finally became apparent at UTA, where he hit .429 as a sophomore in 2003 and .395 the following season. The Astros selected him in the 2004 draft's second round. But Houston had no first-rounder that year, so he was essentially their No. 1.

"There's no question that if he hadn't got hurt he would have been our first first-round pick," said Thomas. "He almost tore his hip flexor in half about halfway through our season running to first. He missed 15 of our 30 conference games and was still player of the year."

College was much like high school. Pence was a phantom away from baseball. Most free time was spent at Gay's cages, a half-mile down Cooper Street from campus. "He was here all the . . . time," said Gay, who allowed Pence to use the cages and threw him BP. (Had Pence been selected for this year's Home Run Derby, Gay was going to be his pitcher.)

"I had to sacrifice a lot of things in my life for baseball," said Pence, who is single. "I missed weddings and funerals. I wasn't going to miss a baseball game. Don't know if that's the right thing to do, but I did it. That was my mind-set."

Perfect fit in Philly

His Arlington buddies visited Pence often when he played in Houston, 300 miles away. And whenever he comes back to Arlington, he typically ends up at the cages. They all think he'll fit perfectly in Philly and they swear success hasn't spoiled him.

"He's the same guy," said Gay. "Down-to-earth. Loves kids. My daughter met him last year in Houston. And when she shook his hand she said, 'Oh my God! Are you all right?' There were blisters all over them.

"That's Hunter. I've never seen him go 70 percent off a tee or in BP or in games. Not even 90 percent. It's always 100 percent with him. He doesn't change."

There is one thing about Pence that has changed. Not much of a reader in high school, he now soaks up Tony Robbins' books and any others that reinforce the power of positive thinking. He's read, his brother said, Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich several times.

"It's not about getting rich," said Howie. "It's about the ways in which successful people achieve success."

For Pence, it seems, that lesson was learned long ago in Arlington, where baseball not only defined his life but became his life.

"He's different," said Nix. "He's just all about baseball. Everybody here knows that. He just had that passion. Everybody says that, but not like him. Every day is a new day to him. And it still looks like that in the major leagues. He's just having fun. He's going to run into walls and dive and do all those things. That's Hunter."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or at ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or follow him on Twitter at @philafitz or on his blog,

"Giving 'Em Fitz."

 

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