Scores of fans and baseball people who came across Hunter Pence during the off-season were effusive with their praise for the fine MLB career he had turned in, one they all assumed was finished.
He took in each one graciously, because, after all, they were taking time to complement him and wish him well, even if they hadn’t taken the time to ask him if he was planning to play in 2019.
“Think of what they were saying: They were thanking me for a great career and enjoyed watching me play,” the Arlington native said. “I couldn’t blame them or be made at them. I was honored they enjoyed watching me play.”
Retirement was never in his plans, not even after a lousy final season with the San Francisco Giants and them moving on from him despite their need for outfielders. He was a player on the decline.
Pence knew something had to change. He has always been open to learning as much as he can about the game, so the 12-year veteran and two-time world champion surrendered a swing that had produced 239 home runs and a .280/.335/.463 slash line.
A new swing, geared toward more line drives and flyballs, took hold during spring training with the Texas Rangers, one of only two teams to offer him an invitation to spring training, and Pence pushed his way into the Rangers’ lineup as an everyday player in early May.
His numbers are eye-opening, and baseball fans were looking. They voted him as the starting designated hitter for tonight’s All-Star Game at Cleveland, but Pence wasn’t going to participate because of a groin injury.
He would have loved to have played because he loves baseball and wasn’t ready to quit it. That was the motivation behind his desire for a 13th MLB season, not to prove wrong all those well-wishers.
“I just love to play, and I love the game,” Pence said. “I don’t really know why you love what you love, but you just do. Some people love art. Some people love reading or making movies. It’s just passion. I love to hit and play and play as a team. That’s my driving force.”
Pence was joined in Cleveland by Rangers teammates Mike Minor and Joey Gallo, both first-time All-Stars. Pence was at his fourth Midsummer Classic. Pence is expected to return from the 10-day injured list this weekend.
It was by far his most improbable appearance and perhaps the most improbable of any All-Star. He didn’t have a guaranteed contract at the start of spring training and had to win a spot on the Rangers’ Opening Day roster.
A player who made $18.5 million each of the past five seasons is making $2 million this season, plus incentives.
The Rangers placed more priority on Pence’s character and reputation as an elite teammate when they signed him. There was upside if he was able to change his swing and stay healthy.
They are benefiting from the talent and the person.
In March, having been around Pence only a few weeks, Gallo said that Pence was already his favorite all-time teammate. He is intense on the field and off it as he prepares to play, and he is an eternal optimist who can shake a younger player out of the blues.
Pence humbly passes when asked about why he’s a great teammate. Others, though, don’t.
“He’s done a lot for me personally,” Gallo said. “There are a lot of times where I’ll get down on myself, and he’ll come up to me and say, ‘That’s not going to do any good for you. Let’s be positive and let’s learn from it.’
“The first time I met I was like, ‘This guy has to be on our team.’ He just brings that character and passion that through the course of 162 games can fizzle out. He brings it every day. He just loves being here.”
That’s what led him to hitting instructor Doug Latta, who engineered the swing that produced 15 home runs, 48 RBIs and a .294/.353/.608 slash line in the first half.
Pence did his share, too, working tirelessly on the changes when other players were vacationing and getting in their rest. Pence went to the Dominican Republic to test out the swing in winter ball.
That’s almost unheard of for an accomplished 12-year MLB veteran.
“I learned a lot about hitting,” Pence said. “The game is constantly changing. If you think you already know everything and you’re not looking to grow and not keeping an open mind, you’re falling behind.”
Pence did it, though, and now he’s an All-Star.
All those off-season well-wishers must be shocked, but they weren’t his off-season motivation.
“I have enough self-motivation I don’t need any more motivation,” Pence said. “At this level you have to carry your weight and you have to make a difference. This is the best in the world, and it’s all about winning and being the best team you can.
“I wouldn’t want to be playing if I wasn’t able to help. And I knew I needed get a lot better if I wanted to chase the dream I love to chase, which is mastering baseball, winning a World Series, making a playoff run, and having a wonderful time on the journey in the process.”