Pence has been a perfect fit in Phillies clubhouse

Hunter Pence was all smiles en route to his first playoffs.
Hunter Pence was all smiles en route to his first playoffs. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff)
Posted: September 30, 2011

The rain had canceled batting practice, and many of the Phillies killed time in the clubhouse before another meaningless baseball game that simply occupied the time until October.

Hunter Pence sat at his locker - the same area of prime space closest to the showers once granted to Jim Thome - and read a self-motivation book, tapped his phone, watched TV, then read the book again.

Restlessness comes easy on a day like this.

He looked up and saw Kyle Kendrick standing in the entrance to the room with a young Phillies fan who won a chance to meet the players through the March of Dimes. They waited there for a few seconds, and that bothered Pence.

"What's up, dude?" he shouted from across the room. "You're not coming in?"

The newest regular in the Phillies clubhouse is most comfortable with his surroundings. At Pence's urging, Kendrick and the boy walked toward him. He gave the boy a pair of his batting gloves and struck up a conversation. Then, another clubhouse visitor tapped Pence on the shoulder.

"You see this guy?" Pence, still beaming, said to the boy. "He's going to give me a drug test. You need to listen to him."

And that is Hunter Pence, a player whose impulsive warmth has energized a clubhouse trademarked by its quiet cool, whose irrepressible goofiness has captivated a fan base accustomed to vapid personalities.

He was the Phillies' prize at the trade deadline, an annual gift unwrapping for the franchise that has made summer blockbusters an expectation. Charlie Manuel clamored all season for a righthanded bat to balance his lineup, and Pence certainly has been that hitter.

Suddenly, he's the only .300 hitter on the team and the man who supplanted Chase Utley in the third spot of Manuel's lineup. Pence was acquired for beyond 2011; two years of arbitration make him a controllable (and relatively young) asset.

But what his teammates admire most is how Pence just fits in. He's never been to the postseason. Yet in a room teeming with October regulars, Pence is a natural. Rescued from moribund Houston, he's hungry - and not just for a phrase now emblazoned on T-shirts the team sells for $19.99.

It's a trait the Phillies have often sought - and found - for their in-season upgrades.

"It's amazing how they do that every year," Shane Victorino said. "Yeah, they could go out and get anybody they want to. No questions asked. But to understand what guys will fit in here and what's right for this clubhouse . . ."

Guy is grunting

They laughed because that was the only appropriate reaction to what they saw. Brian Schneider and a couple of teammates tried to stifle the laughter because this was the new guy, and no one was sure how he'd take a joke - especially when it concerned baseball.

Schneider, the backup catcher, waited his turn in the underground batting cage shortly following Pence's addition to the best team in baseball. The scene he watched was enough to elicit a smile. Pence was chopping wood. No, he was swinging a9 iron. Or maybe he had figured it all out, and the rest of us were ignorant.

Whatever, it was funny.

"This guy is grunting," Schneider said. "He's taking balls off the tee, and he's grunting."

The new teammates chuckled. Pence stopped swinging. The sheepish players hid.

"Oh, it's OK," Pence told them. "I'm used to people laughing at my swing. That's just me. That's the way I do it. You can laugh all you want. I don't care."

"Right away," Schneider said, "we know we can have fun with him and mess around. He's not going to take it seriously. We love having him here."

Pence, who can boast being on both a 100-win and 100-loss team in the same season, appreciated the boost in the standings.

"This is a great clubhouse," Pence said. "There are some remarkable people in here. That being said, it makes it easy."

So he was an outsider only briefly. The day before he arrived in Philadelphia, both Manuel and Ruben Amaro Jr. predicted this city would adopt him as a beloved figure. They expected the players inside the clubhouse would, too.

That was by design.

"The energy helps a more veteran team that doesn't have a ton of big personalities," Amaro said. "Victorino is a pretty lively guy. Jimmy [Rollins] is not afraid to say things. But most of the guys are pretty quiet, private professionals. It's not the worst thing in the world to have somebody with a little more enthusiasm."

The Phillies, Amaro said, scouted more than Pence's play on the field. The general manager said at least six top scouts watched Pence and filed reports about his character.

"It means something," Amaro said. "It's a factor."

During the Atlanta Braves' run of 11 straight division titles, the front office was willing to make changes while sustaining a core group of players. Amaro said that philosophy is one he has attempted to duplicate with his numerous acquisitions.

The Phillies began the season with Ben Francisco in right field. Ultimately, Domonic Brown earned a majority of the playing time. But even before the season started, the Phillies saw a weakness. Not until July did Pence offer the best option for an upgrade.

"Having a core is important," Amaro said. "But beyond that, you have to make change. You have to change some of the parts. It's important. Did we want to say goodbye to Pat Burrell? No. Did we want to say goodbye to Aaron Rowand? No. But we thought in certain instances that change can work. Does it work every time? Only if you replace them with the right guys."

Moment is good

It's been easy for fans to embrace Pence because he's hit .324 and socked 11 home runs in 54 games. He saluted the crowd at Citizens Bank Park numerous times during his debut. Then he started tweeting at fans. And then he ripped off his shirt while strutting down the runway for Victorino's fashion show in August.

"Coming here, he gets the limelight and exposure he deserves," Victorino said. "He thrives off that sort of stuff."

There was no defining moment for Pence because he believes it will not come until October. Stepping in the clubhouse was neat, but that was months ago, so Pence claims he doesn't remember the feeling.

"I don't know," Pence said last week, "but I know the moment right now is a good one."

He's the youngest player Amaro has attained in his three years as GM. When this city was smitten with its baseball team four years ago, it cherished the team's exuberance and novelty. Now, the Phillies have the oldest clubhouse in baseball, success is demanded, and personalities are dulled.

So no, it's not hard to see why Hunter Pence is the perfect fit.


Contact staff writer Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com or @magelb on Twitter.

 

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