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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- With Hunter Pence it's the eyes.

You walk up to some players early on a spring-training morning and the eyes look away. It's like — "This is way too soon for talk. Let me drink my coffee and get ready for life."

Not with Pence. His eyes are inviting. You might even say absorbing. They are open wider than most eyes, almost startled, and it seems he never blinks. Maybe he sees more than everyone else.

He is sitting at his locker, gazing around the clubhouse. That is what he does, he gazes. You ask for a minute of his time. You say the subject is awkward. He perks up. You say the subject literally is awkward. You tell Pence he looks awkward when he plays baseball.

You've been thinking about this, how his practice swings look like someone attacking poultry with an ax, how his outfield throws come at a curious angle. If he were a Little League player and you were his coach, you might try to remake him.

You tell him of this, speak of his awkwardness. Those eyes, he drinks you in with them.

"People seem to say that about me," he says. "When I'm playing, I'm more focused on what's going on. So, I don't totally know what it looks like. It's a reoccurring theme that whatever I do is awkward. I understand it may appear that way."

He takes no offense. You say, "So, there are two ways of perceiving. How you experience yourself — 'I don't feel awkward.' And how you are looked at from the outside. And when you experience it yourself it just feels normal."

"Yeah, I'm just playing the game."

Pence has introduced one of the basic issues of Western philosophy. What is primary, internal or external reality? He will do things like that early on a spring morning.

You say, "I'm sure you see video of yourself playing. When you watch yourself, you're the outsider looking in. Does it look the way other people do it or do you see yourself at those moments as a little awkward?"

"You referring to hitting or outfield?"

"Hitting, for sure, but also the way you move around the outfield."

"My warm-up swing and my throwing are the two, when I would look, those really throw me off a lot. When I watch myself hit in an actual game, I don't judge too much on film. There are certain little things I am looking at to get better — being ready on time, where my hands are. The rest is looking at where the pitch was that I'm selecting.

"If I see myself throwing on film, I feel that does not look normal and also my warm-up swing but I can't explain it. It's just how it is. Ultimately, I understand that baseball is a fluid thing and everyone is different. And what I see when I'm looking at film, it's hard to remember what I was feeling at that exact moment. A lot of times anyone in sports is going to think they're doing one thing, but when you see it, maybe it's something else.

"Sometimes, I may think I have my hands really high or really far back. When I go look at the film it hasn't changed very much. Getting in a mirror can help if you're trying to change something. As far as my throwing, when I was in the minors they tried to make me throw over the top a whole bunch, but it just hurts my shoulder really bad."

"Tried to make you conform?"

"Yeah, I got lucky because the Astros — that's who I came up with — they had another kid named Charlton Jimerson who was really an incredible athlete and he threw kind of awkward. But he had a strong arm and he threw a lot of people out, and they tried to conform him to a proper motion and they ended up hurting his arm. Because of that instance — I feel awful for Charlton — they just let me be."

Pence looks up, silently asking, "What else have you got?" He's interested in the else.

You say, "In other parts of your life, do other people experience you as awkward or different?"

"I guess that's open to interpretation. I just try and be myself."

"You want to hear my interpretation?"

"Not really."

He's staring now.

"I think it's interesting, actually," you say.

"All right, go ahead."


"You strike me as someone who's hyper-alert to the atmosphere in the room and to the people you're focusing on. You're looking around and observing — not judging. You're a very observant person. I hope that didn't offend you."

"No. No. I try not to be offendable. You're making me be way too alert right now. I don't know how to really answer that. I'm just me. As a ballplayer you owe the team complete attention. I think the small details are very important. Not just the physical small details, but the connection of the team, the emotion of the team, helping out in other ways beyond just mechanics. I just try to be there to encourage. I look at myself as an encourager and a protector.

"I understand encourager," you say. "What do you mean by protector?"

Pushing it now.

"I don't know," he says, "just protective. I don't know how to say protector other than protector."

"I understand in the batting order," you say, "you'd want to protect the person in front of you. But I think you were talking more general than that."

"Just being there for someone who may be in danger of any kind. A protector would be someone who would look out for someone else, in my eyes. Right?"

He smiles. You smile.

"Thanks for hanging in with me early in the morning," you say.

"I tried to give you my best."

And that is the end of it, should be the end of it. But when you leave the clubhouse, he follows you out to the hallway where reporters mill about.

"I don't know if you'll actually add this in, but I just want it to be out there," he says, his voice earnest, almost urgent. "I'm still in the process of learning. That means I don't have everything figured out. I'm trying to learn every day."

He pauses, searches for more words. "So, that's all," he says. "That's another reason to pay attention. To learn is to pay attention."

To pay attention to Hunter Pence is to learn. That's what you think.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.

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