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

Associated Press
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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.

Biden praises Braves’ ‘unstoppable, joyful run’ to 2021 win

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said the Atlanta Braves will be “forever known as the upset kings of October” for their improbable 2021 World Series win, as he welcomed the team to the White House for a victory celebration.

Biden called the Braves’ drive an “unstoppable, joyful run.” The team got its White House visit in with just over a week left before the 2022 regular season wraps up and the Major League Baseball playoffs begin again. The Braves trail the New York Mets by 1.5 games in the National League East but have clinched a wildcard spot for the MLB playoffs that begin Oct. 7. Chief Executive Officer Terry McGuirk said he hoped they’d be back to the White House again soon.

In August 2021, the Braves were a mess, playing barely at .500. But then they started winning. And they kept it up, taking the World Series in six games over the Houston Astros.

Biden called their performance of “history’s greatest turnarounds.”

“This team has literally been part of American history for over 150 years,” said Biden. “But none of it came easy … people counting you out. Heck, I know something about being counted out.”

Players lined up on risers behind Biden, grinning and waving to the crowd, but the player most discussed was one who hasn’t been on the team in nearly 50 years and who died last year: Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.

Hammerin’ Hank was the home run king for 33 years, dethroning Babe Ruth with a shot to left field on April 8, 1974. He was one of the most famous players for Atlanta and in baseball history, a clear-eyed chronicler of the hardships thrown his way – from the poverty and segregation of his Alabama youth to the racist threats he faced during his pursuit of one of America’s most hallowed records. He died in January at 86.

“This is team is defined by the courage of Hank Aaron,” Biden said.

McGuirk said Aaron, who held front office positions with the team and was one of Major League Baseball’s few Black executives, was watching over them.

“He’d have been there every step of the way with us if he was here,” McGuirk added.

The president often honors major league and some college sports champions with a White House ceremony, typically a nonpartisan affair in which the commander in chief pays tribute to the champs’ prowess, poses for photos and comes away with a team jersey.

Those visits were highly charged in the previous administration. Many athletes took issue with President Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric on policing, immigration and more. Trump, for his part, didn’t take kindly to criticism from athletes or their on-field expressions of political opinions.

Under Biden, the tradition appears to be back. He’s hosted the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks and Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the White House. On Monday he joked about first lady Jill Biden’s Philadelphia allegiances.

“Like every Philly fan, she’s convinced she knows more about everything in sports than anybody else,” he said. He added that he couldn’t be too nice to the Atlanta team because it had just beaten the Phillies the previous night in extra innings.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was later questioned about the team’s name, particularly as other professional sports teams have moved away from names – like the Cleveland Indians, now the Guardians, and the Washington Redskins, now the Commanders – following years of complaints from Native American groups over the images and symbols.

She said it was important for the country to have the conversation. “And Native American and Indigenous voices – they should be at the center of this conversation,” she said.

Biden supported MLB’s decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to protest Georgia’s sweeping new voting law, which critics contend is too restrictive.