Philadelphia Metropolis


The Minister of Enthusiasm

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080411-hunter-pence-400.jpgOver the summer, we ran a series called Creating the New City about a dozen artists, social activists, entrepreneurs, etc. in their 20's who are changing Philadelphia for the better.  I have a name to add to that list: Hunter Pence.

For those of you who don't follow baseball, Pence is a 28-year-old right fielder acquired by the Phils in a trade with the Houston Astros on July 29th.

If you haven't seen him in action, watch the opening game of the National League playoffs tomorrow (Saturday, Oct. 1). He is a revelation.

Pence is a human shot of adrenalin, who hurls himself into the game with what I guess we should call purposeful abandon.

On a team composed mostly of stoic professionals (See: Utley, Chase), Pence has become the Minister of Enthusiasm.

When the Phils take the field, Pence doesn't trot out of the dugout, he runs out like he's being chased by a bear. When he's on the bases, he runs as if  he is trying to achieve the necessary velocity needed to take flight. His swing has none of the balletic grace of a Ted Williams or the silky smoothness of an Utley. It's more an act of violence.  He looks like a madman taking an axe to a tree.  I still can't figure out how he can hit that small, white ball -- but hit it he does.  He ended the season with 97 RBI's and 22 homeruns and a .314 average.  Very impressive.

Down the stretch, Manager Charlie Manuel benched Pence for a few games to let him rest a hurt knee. Any other player would put on his poker face and say: Whatever is best for the team. Pence tried, but he couldn't pull it off.  His face told you he was desperately unhappy, as opposed to his usual demeanor, which ranges from "Gee Whiz!" to "Holy Mackerel!" The guy didn't want to sit.  He wanted to play.

Pence is an example of the work of the baseball gods, who govern baseball. Nearly every player believes in them.

They are not like the Christian Father, Son and Holy Ghost, but resemble the Greek gods -- Zeus, Athena, Posiedon and the other denizens of Mount Olympus -- who made human beings their play things. They would raise some up and cast others down, just for the heck of it. In ancient Greece, from moment to moment, you never knew whether you were going to be a joker or a king. The same is true in baseball.

Pence is an example of what happens when the gods smile. Before he was traded to the Phillies in mid-season, he was with the Houston Astros, who ended the 2011 season 40 games out of first place in their division.

One day, Pence was on a losing, dog-like team. The next, he was on the first-place Phillies -- with Utley buying him coffee and Cliff Lee patting him on the back. When Pence first arrived, he had an overjoyed look that said: "Holy Mackerel! I can't believe this! I'm on the best team in baseball!" The funny thing is: he still looks that way.

I couldn't help but think about my father when I read about the trade.

My father was a professional baseball player, a right-handed relief pitcher, who in mid-season ion 1950 was a member of the St. Louis Browns, arguably one of the worst baseball teams ever. On June 15, in a multi-player deal, he was traded to the New York Yankees, unarguably the best team in baseball. The Yankees went on to win the World Series and my father won the third game over a team I fear to name, lest I be attacked on the street. (Full disclosure: it was the Phillies.)

My father, who died in 1996, played major league ball from 1941 to 1952 (with time out for World War II), then he was a pitching coach for a half-dozen teams, before becoming superscout for the Kansas City Royals when the franchise was founded. 

I added it up once and it came to nearly 60 years of being paid to play, coach or watch professional baseball. Not a bad life, for a kid born in poverty in the Bronx in 1915, with a father who died when he was seven and a stepfather who died when he was 16.

My father was old-school, one of those stoics who never reflected -- at least not to me  -- how he felt being favored by the baseball gods, at least for one season. He knew they were fickle. (Sure enough, in the midst of the 1951 season, he was traded by the Yankees to the Washington Senators, another losing team.)

I can say with authority, though, that my mother was delighted. Although he did not join the team until June, my father got the full share that went to the Yankee players who won the Series. It was $5,700. It wasn't chump change. It's the equivalent of about $52,000 today. But, this was the pre-Moneyball Era in baseball. Few players got rich off the game. This year, the players on the team that wins the World Series are likely to get between $350,000 and $400,000 each.

My mother was a South Philly girl and a child of the Depression. To her, $5,700 was a huge pile of money. And she spent it with purposeful abandon. At the time, my parents had two children and lived in her father's South Philly rowhouse.

They used the World Series money to put a down payment on a new house in Havertown, bought a Ford station wagon (that lasted 11 years), and splurged on a solid cherry dining room suite that included a hutch and a table big enough to seat eight. That came in handy because they ended up having six children. Did I mention that we were Irish Catholic?

That aside, I'd like to take this moment to offer my thanks to the gods of baseball for the house, the car and the dining room furniture. And for sending my father to the Yankees.

And, dear gods, I also would like to thank you for bringing us Hunter Pence.

                                                                                                        -- Tom Ferrick

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