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.