I’ve got a friend who used to dip. We’ll call him Special Agent X, because he’s a government agent, and while I could give you the name he’s gone by as long as I’ve known him, I’m not sure it’s his real name, because people in his line of work are not born the way you and I are, but rather grown in a test tube in Quantico and stripped of human qualities that might get in the way of their professional lives, like fingerprints, or remorse.
Anyway, Special Agent X, in the it-takes-one-to-know-one manner, has spent the last several months pointing out to me every ballplayer he sees on TV who dips. Of course, I’d been aware of the phenomenon of ballplayers using smokeless tobacco before, because my favorite player when I was six years old was Lenny Dykstra, the man Andy Van Slyke once accused of turning center field in Veterans Stadium into a “toxic waste dump.” The obvious offenders (Dykstra and Carlos Perez long ago, Chipper Jones and Nick Swisher now) never bothered me, but I’ve been trained by Special Agent X to pick up the slightly swollen lower lip, or the telltale can in the back pocket–subtle signs that might go unnoticed by the casual observer, but allow Special Agent X to identify those players (Chase Utley, for instance) who indulge in the use of smokeless tobacco on the field of play.
Anyway, I was sitting behind first base at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday night, in perfect view of the backside of any runner to reach first base (which, considering that Utley singled twice that night, made me the envy of the women of Citizens Back Park). It was after Hunter Pence singled in the bottom of the eighth that I noticed the aforementioned can of what I assumed to be dip in his back pocket.
I bring this up not as any sort of crusade against Hunter Pence, or even against dip, which I find personally disgusting but in no way morally reprehensible (though not as disgusting as that bizarre wad of gum-and-sunflower seeds that A-Rod keeps in his cheek during games). Instead, I was shocked that Hunter Pence did something on a baseball diamond that I couldn’t imagine a hyperactive 11-year-old doing.
I usually poo-poo the so-called “intangible” elements of baseball, particularly in player evaluation. So I’ll say that while I in no way believe that Hunter Pence’s childlike nature adds anything to the Phillies’ performance, it makes him superlatively fun to watch in the field. I’ll also say that I still think the trade that brought him here was a bad deal for the Phillies, but that doesn’t take away from how much I’ve enjoyed watching him play over the past couple weeks.
I hadn’t seen a lot of Pence live until his arrival in Philadelphia for two reasons: 1) he played in Houston, which meant that his games weren’t on TV very much here and 2) even if they were, watching Pence would require watching the rest of the Houston Astros, and frankly, since 2005 or so, I’d rather stub my toe on a cinder block over and over than watch the Astros. I’m sure you understand.
So I was aware of Pence’s gangly all arms-and-legs running style and his exaggerated bad-actor-in-a-movie-about-the-dead-ball-era-White-Sox swing, but seeing it day in and day is an entirely different experience altogether. I had previously been convinced that Chase Utley–the man whose movements on the field I’d once compared, in separate incidents, to a fiddler crab on acid and a chimpanzee chasing a penguin across a frozen lake–would take the cake for “most awkward good baseball player” from now until the end of recorded history. I was wrong.
Here’s the thing, though, about Hunter Pence. I should really hate him as a player. He’s got this compulsion to swing at the first pitch in every at-bat. He doesn’t get on base as much as he ought to, and watching him play the field is even weirder than watching Chase Utley. The Phillies paid, I still maintain, a huge price to acquire him. Pence ought to frustrate me for the same reason Shane Victorino did until he turned into Tris Speaker this season: his baseball IQ was holding him back from being the player he could be. But for some reason, that doesn’t matter–the things about Hunter Pence that would drive me to distraction in another ballplayer are somehow endearing in Pence.
Here’s the thing about Hunter Pence: he’s a good player who’s more fun to have on one’s team than he ought to be for no other reason than he’s easier to imagine as a Little Leaguer than perhaps anyone else in the majors. Let’s try to imagine Roy Halladay in the Little League World Series. He’d be the six-foot-one 12-year-old who never smiles. Sort of like now. Most major leaguers are hard to imagine as kids because they take the game so seriously now. That’s as it should be, because they’re, you know, professionals. I think this is about as close as we’ll get to getting that glimpse for most Phillies players.
But Hunter Pence? Doesn’t it seem plausible that he started playing right field because that was where his insistence on sitting down and pulling the petals off dandelions in the field would do the least harm to the team? The way he can’t sit still in the batter’s box, can’t you imagine him hanging off the chain-link dugout fence screaming “WE WANT A PITCHER, NOT A BELLY-ITCHER!” for six innings? I’m not convinced he doesn’t still do this. Hunter Pence is a three-or-four fWAR player; a nice player, if not a superstar. But when you’re getting three fWAR a season from an overcaffeinated 11-year-old, it’s a lot more fun to watch.
I guess this is my way of saying that I’m on board with the Hunter Pence experiment, if not with my head then with my heart. It just looks like too much fun not to be.