Craig Calcaterra

Hunter Pence, Brandon Belt
Associated Press

Hunter Pence: “All of this is just for fun”


SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ — The N.L. West is going to be a tough division. The Dodgers are the defending champions and still have all of that talent and financial muscle we’ve discussed at length. The Diamondbacks, though coming off of a couple of sub-par years, are featuring an increasingly crowded bandwagon this spring due to their abundance of offensive talent and their acquisition of two great starting pitchers.

The Giants, meanwhile, are winners of three World Series championships in the past six years and added two pretty stellar pitchers of their own. Various projection systems don’t see them improving dramatically, however, and they’re not even getting the same sort of hype that other, lesser teams like the Boston Red Sox have gotten on the basis of free agent signings. They certainly haven’t been disrespected in the way athletes often use that term, but people outside of San Francisco aren’t rushing to proclaim them a top choice for 2016 either. I asked some Giants players how that feels.

“That’s OK. We almost prefer that. We’d rather fly under the radar,” starting pitcher Chris Heston said. “It’s nice if people do call you the favorites. We get excited when people are talking a lot about us. We get fired up. You can’t believe it or buy into it. You still have to do your job, but it’s better to hear that than nothing.”

Hunter Pence is a bit more zen about it all.

“I don’t know. I’m not, like, a media analyst or any of that. All of this is just for fun,” Pence said, referring to preseason chatter. “We play. You guys talk about stuff. We’re all doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” he added with a smile.

After a little small talk Pence warmed up a bit more to the concept of expectations and acknowledged that while it’s not really important for him, it can be important for other players.

“Everyone’s different,” Pence said. “Some players may read a lot into the prediction stuff and the analysis. Some people in the game might hear that they’re good or they’re supposed to be good and that makes them better. Some might hear that they’re good and that makes them worse. Some take motivation from hearing they’re not good. Some can’t handle hearing negative things,” he said. 

Pence clearly doesn’t pay attention to the expectations or the larger external conversation about the Giants or himself. So I asked him whether, despite the fact that some of his teammates may pay attention to it and may even thrive on it, it’s a waste of time for fans and the media to invest themselves in all of the chatter and whether it might not be better for us all to forget that stuff and just watch and enjoy the games. His answer surprised me a bit.

“No, because what [the fans and the media] talk about is part of the fun of baseball. It’s part of the experience of being a fan. It’s the whole drama the whole season has. It has no effect on most of us, but it’s cool,” Pence said. Then, echoing the catchall expletive I used in my question as a shorthand for the off-the-field-conversation, Pence said “It’s not bullshit. It’s fun.”

Fun. A simple but somewhat elusive concept in baseball lately. Certainly when it comes the way players approach the game. In the words of Terry Collins, “fun time is over” for them. To the extent some fun is still allowed, there continues to be a robust conversation about the form it may or may not properly take.

For Pence’s part, however, he’s not interested in telling fans or the press how to talk about the game. He’s not, like some players seem to be, invested in having us concentrate solely on their execution of baseball skills or to buy into the notion that you gotta take ’em one game at a time. 

I asked Pence if, in light of that, he considers himself an entertainer. He doesn’t, but he certainly allows some room for that notion.

“I don’t think of myself as that. An entertainer. I’m a baseball player and my direct goal is not to entertain but to be the best baseball player I can be,” Pence said. “But I understand that that’s what our business is. That the whole point is to provide entertainment. I don’t have to think of myself as an entertainer to give that to people but I do know that’s what people are looking for in the end.” 

In the past five days here in the desert I’ve heard a lot of different things about the relationship between how we as fans view a baseball season and how players, in contrast, view it. The Cubs brass has adopted a line about embracing fan expectations, but in reality their players dismiss expectations as important to them and their preparation. The Dodgers and their new manager are actively and explicitly working hard to view their season as a more granular, day-to-day experience rather than think about drama or the external conversation. For good reason, I think, given what’s gone on with them over the past few years. Against that backdrop I’ve heard a lot about how, no matter how one balances all of that stuff, real life still exists for these players and that these players don’t exist solely for the fulfillment or disappointment of our expectations.

Hunter Pence’s philosophy seems to encompass all of these competing approaches and somewhat contradictory forces and, in some ways, simplifies matters. Or, at the very least, serves as a reminder of what the whole point of it all is anyway. Do what you need to do prepare yourself mentally. Embrace or shun expectations. Listen to the critics or tune them out. It doesn’t matter. Just don’t forget that this is supposed to be fun, OK? If you’re not having fun, what the hell is the point, really?

As philosophies go, you could do much, much worse.

“There’s a sense from a lot of people that our lives are not real”

Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez stretches before the Dodgers' exhibition baseball game against the Chicago White Sox in Glendale, Ariz., Friday, Feb. 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Associated Press

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz — We turn on the game at 7pm. We turn it off at, maybe, 10:30pm. For most of us baseball occupies a three hour window of our lives each day. During those three hours fantastic physical specimens in matching uniforms and, part of the time, helmets, compete for purposes of our entertainment. In an age of bread and circuses, they’re the closest thing we have to a gladiators.

While there are frequently good stories written about the personal lives of ballplayers (this one about Ian Desmond’s family is one I still remember well), most fans still forget that they’re human beings who exist in the same world we do between the time we turn that TV off and the time we turn it back on again. They forget that they have families and responsibilities. That they have stress. That their days are longer than we typically see and that despite their wealth and despite the fact that their jobs are pretty great, those days aren’t always easy.

Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez knows one thing the fans don’t see: when they get to work.

“They really think we get to the park at six o’clock,” Gonzalez said. “And they think we leave ten minutes after the last out. They don’t always understand how long we’re here. It’s a great job, I’m not complaining, but we have really long days. Eleven, twelve hours and that’s without the traveling.”

And it is absolutely that long of a day. For night games, players will leave their homes at noon. Earlier if they live farther from the park or if they’re rehabbing something. They’ll eat and prep and see the trainer or take hacks or whatever in the hours before the game. Then the clubhouse opens up to the media. Then the game, of course. Afterwards most stick around for a good extra hour after giving their quotes to the media, either to ice down, do post-game “recovery” cardio or to watch film. Gonzalez says it’s rare for him to be home before 11:30 and most nights it’s midnight. For day games — which come on the heels of a night game, remember — the players may leave as early as 7am.

Again, baseball is a sweet job, but 12 hours at the office is 12 hours at the office regardless. And that’s before you take the travel into account. Oh, and some of these guys have families too, you know.

Brad Ziegler

“There are times guys go to the field and, you know, their kids are sick and they’ve been up all night with a crying baby,” Diamondbacks reliever Brad Ziegler told me. “And no one has any idea about that. And you get to the field and you’re not the same as you’d be if you had a good night. Or you have a grandparent who has been moved to hospice. When you get here you’re supposed to block all of that out but can’t ever just completely get rid of it.”

Ziegler notes that these real problems are often invisible to fans.

“There’s a sense from a lot of people, especially the casual fan, that our lives are not real. That we don’t have the same problems because we have money.”

It’s certainly a mindset we’ve all encountered. Maybe one we’ve even harbored before. Just think of how many conversations you’ve had with fans which have included the phrase “. . . paid to play a kids game.” I’ve lost count of how many comments I’ve seen here in which a fan offers some variation on “[Player] should just shut up. He makes millions” in response to one of them offering a comment about the grind of the season or the travel.

It’s not an easy dynamic for players to combat. They’re well aware of the fact that any time they publicly reference such off-the-field things they’re liable to be accused of making excuses, which is a cardinal sin in the eyes of many. There’s also the media dynamic. In an age where players are trained to give inoffensive, cliche answers to virtually every question, even the slightest deviation from the “we just gotta play them one game at a time” line is seen as “controversial.” When even a mild critique of something is called “an evisceration,” the mere acknowledgment of some negativity is seen as “entitled athlete whining.” It’s something which may be the fault of a small handful of talk radio goons and agenda-driven bloggers or columnists, but it’s something which has made its way into the general sports discourse as well.

They are big boys, of course. They can take it. They can take the travel and the long days and the misapprehension of these things by fans. As both Gonzalez and Ziegler noted repeatedly, they have fantastic jobs they wouldn’t trade for the world and they are very well paid to do them. Several months off come October or November helps a lot too.

But we as fans should not forget that ballplayers are, more or less, working 180 or so straight 11-12 hour days, often in the heat, always under media scrutiny, with a lot of travel in the middle. We should remember that when the fatigue sets in and the injuries mount. We should remember that before we moan from our bleacher seats, our barstools or our couches about how any given player is pampered, coddled, soft or fragile. We should remember that though ballplayers are, for many of us, modern gladiators, their lives are every bit as real as ours are.

The Dodgers will let the media worry about the “storylines”

Los Angeles Dodgers players warm up before a spring training exhibition baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim, Calif., Thursday, March 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Christine Cotter)
Associated Press

GLENDALE, ARIZ — Brandon Beachy was the Dodgers’ starting pitcher on Saturday night. Which made it so odd to see him just sitting in front of his locker two hours before game time with no newspaper, book or electronic device in his hand and making no effort to avoid the media. Which isn’t to say that he’s normally standoffish or anything. It’s just uncommon for the guy pitching that day’s game to be so available. That day’s starter is often off in an area off-limits to the media, prepping, working out, talking to coaches or whatever. He usually faces the media after he comes out of the game and keeps to himself before.

There’s pressure on the veteran righty. After comebacks from two Tommy John surgeries, he appears to be the top choice of Dave Roberts to take the injured Brett Anderson‘s spot in the Dodgers rotation. So far he’s doing an admirable job of it — he would throw three scoreless innings against the Cubs on this night and has five scoreless innings on the spring — but it would be understandable if he was a bit tight and less willing to just chat casually with a reporter he doesn’t know. Beachy, though, is loose. Everyone in the Dodgers’ clubhouse is.

Which is likewise somewhat unusual. To some degree all spring training clubhouses are loose because it’s still spring training and no one’s season has been ruined yet, but there are varying degrees of looseness. In the past few years the Dodgers’ spring clubhouse has seemed a bit more tense than some others. It’s understandable. Don Mattingly entered the past couple of seasons on a hotter seat than some and off-the-field and clubhouse distractions from guys like Yasiel Puig only made things more complicated. Puig is still there, of course, but he’s allegedly getting better. Mattingly is now gone.

In his place is new manager Dave Roberts, who has a lot to do with the looseness, according to Beachy. I ask him if it’s fair to say that he’s a positive, high-energy guy.

I’d say that’s very accurate. He’s always got a smile on his face. He’s very outgoing. He’s a guy who likes to have fun and he brings that to our team meetings every day,” Beachy said. “He does different things to try to get us laughing and get us together as a group. You look around this room and you see guys playing video games and ping pong. We had guys taking hockey shots at each other the other day. It’s a group of guys having fun.”

Indeed, Roberts even participated in the Dodgers’ annual spring training ping pong tournament himself this year, which is something Mattingly never did. Which isn’t a slight on Mattingly — I’m guessing neither Bruce Bochy nor Clint Hurdle are playing ping pong with their players — but it says a lot about the tone Roberts is setting. Part of that tone: taking the weight of external expectations off the shoulders of Dodgers players.

The Dodgers will once again have an outsized payroll in 2016 — in the neighborhood of $229 million at the moment — and with it comes outsized expectations. While the expectations on the Cubs are born of something undeniably positive — they won a lot last year and got better in the offseason — the Dodgers’ expectations are somewhat more complicated. They’ve won, sure, and people expect them to continue to win. But there’s also a sense that because of that payroll they have somehow failed if they don’t win the World Series. There’s likewise a sense that, thanks to some high-profile controversies about and between players, the off-the-field business is impacting the on-the-field work of the Dodgers. Now, under Roberts, such things simply don’t seem to register with players in any real way.

“Yeah, everyone in baseball says ‘we expect to win a championship, we expect to win the World Series.’ And we do — that’s obviously the goal — but that’s kind of big-picture,” Beachy said. “Dave has focused a lot more on the process. The day-to-day. The smaller things that you can control. You take care of those small things and then you look up at the end and then you’re pretty close to reaching that ultimate goal. If you did your job right.”

Beachy hasn’t had a lot of time with the Dodgers yet so he can’t necessarily compare how Roberts is handling things with how Mattingly did like some longer-tenured Dodgers players could. But he did say that when he was with the Braves he found that day-to-day approach to be more conducive to players doing their jobs than thinking about a team’s overall expectations or whatever narratives are ruling the day among fans and the media. It’s a message I’m hearing over and over here in Arizona. How the “storylines” are for the press and the fans, not the players.

“We have expectations internally, in this room, and none of those expectations have to do with those outside factors. The business stuff, the money stuff, the controversy, that’s all for you guys,” Beachy said. “Our expectations come from the talent that’s in this room. You look around this room and see the best pitcher in baseball. Some veteran guys who have done it and done it really well for a long time. That’ll determine how we do. Those guys doing their job and those of us who have to step up and help them doing our jobs. What anyone out of this room says is not something which affects us or gives us higher or lower expectations.”

Two days into my spring training trip, one thing is coming through loud and clear: what we talk about as fans and commentators is almost completely divorced from what players think about. If one of these teams with high expectations starts slowly, we’re going to say that they’re buckling under pressure or possibly choking. We’re going to say that they’re feeling the weight of expectations. After talking to players, however, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that that’s an exercise in projection. That those of us on the outside are grafting a layer of drama on to a bunch of players who are simply doing — or failing to do — their jobs.

Leaving Camelback Ranch on Saturday night I was thinking about what Beachy said. And, because I’m kind of cynical, I couldn’t help but think that what he had to say, while interesting, was a little on-the-nose. Something that hews almost exactly with what team leadership and the P.R. staff likes to hear from players. A more expansive “we play them one game at time and tune out the distractions” stuff. So, with all due respect to Beachy, I wanted the view on this stuff from a player who may be a bit more free to speak his mind on the matter. Someone who plays a more prominent leadership role on his team and who is not as likely to delve into cliche as a fourth or fifth starter might.

So on Sunday I talked to Hunter Pence. I liked what he had to say about it all. Stay tuned for that post.