SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -– There might come a time following a Giants victory when Hunter Pence and Gary Brown meet in the outfield for one of those celebratory, leaping, midair hip-bump things.
If they do, you’ll be able to describe it in one word:
Pence doesn’t do anything by the book, whether it’s his scoopy swings in the on-deck circle, his chicken-wing warmup throws in right field or the way he almost genuflects on his back knee when he takes a big cut.
Brown is no textbook model, either. His hands are close to his chest when he grips the bat, like a child afraid someone will try to wrest away a favorite toy. He shimmies his hips as a PGA Tour pro waggles his driver. The setup, the swing, the approach – none of it conforms.
Pence is a two-time All-Star coming off his first 100-RBI season. And he is an inspiration to Brown, who hopes to reach that stage, and soon.
“That’s what makes this game special, and this team, too,” said Brown, soaking in one more look at the morning sunshine bathe Scottsdale Stadium before he packs his duffel for minor league camp. “Nobody’s really cookie cutter here and that’s endearing to a lot of fans.
“What did they call them – the misfits? I wouldn’t say I’m a misfit, exactly, but I’d say I’m definitely different.”
Being different often means making tough decisions. Coaches want Brown to put some space between his hands and chest, which should allow him to barrel up inside pitches from right-handers. It’s reminiscent of Brandon Belt’s crossroads the previous two springs, when the Giants urged him to move back in the box and stand up straighter.
Brown was candid: It’s been a push and pull.
“I’ve been hitting (my) way for a long time and had success, so being honest, it’s hard to change that on a whim,” he said. “But I’ll keep working at it. I’d like to force the issue this year and I don’t think that’s out of the question.”
After his challenging year at Double-A Richmond, there are scouts who believe that Brown will amount to little more than a platoon outfielder if he cannot adjust to right-handed pitching. Brown doesn’t buy that, of course, but he trusts that Giants officials have his best interests in mind when they suggest changes.
And yet, two locker stalls away, Pence slurps tea from his custom brewing cylinder and pulls up his high socks -- living proof that the orthodoxy isn’t always right.
“If you asked Craig Counsell why he held his bat way above his head, he probably couldn’t explain it, either,” Brown said with a laugh. “It goes for pitchers, too. You see Tim Lincecum’s windup and it works for him.
“As for me, nobody was going to teach my way of hitting. Nobody can take credit for how funny it looks but myself.”
He learned his swing from a young age when his father threw waves of practice pitches to him. He’d watch players on TV and try to copy elements of their swing, but he wouldn’t stick with anything long if it didn’t feel good. Even after breaking out at Cal State Fullerton and turning himself into a first-round draft pick, Brown has heard that gurgling current his whole life.
Especially in a game like baseball, when people do things the same way, it’s easier to criticize,” he said. “I’ve dealt with that my whole career.”
Pence knows the sound of this stream, too.
“I’ve been changed around since before college,” said Pence, who was the Houston Astros’ first-round pick out of Texas-Arlington. “But I always went back to something my dad likes to say: `Good hitters find a way to hit.’
“I was fortunate to find a way, and yes, there’s more than one. You only have to watch one major league game or look around this room to know that. That’s why I like to say one of the best lessons in baseball you can ever learn is ‘know thyself.’”
Brown knows he has other work to do. Last season wasn’t as dire as some of the numbers would lead you to believe, since his average improved month over month at Richmond (finishing at .279). He reached base in 36 consecutive games in June and July. But nobody in the Eastern League was caught stealing more often than Brown, who was thrown out 18 times against 33 successful swipes. He’ll need to improve his on-base skills and work deeper counts, too, to be considered a future everyday leadoff hitter.
But as Papa Pence would say, Brown found a way to hit by seasons' end. And even with Angel Pagan just beginning a four-year, $40 million contract, Brown isn’t blocked. Pagan always could slide to an outfield corner in the future.
This spring, Brown was never a candidate to make the opening-day roster and he didn’t exactly turn heads (7 for 28 with a double, a triple, a home run, eight strikeouts and one walk -- plus another homer against Team Japan that doesn't count in the Cactus League state). But nothing appeared to dampen his upbeat personality. After Andres Torres broke a bat over his knee, Brown joked on Twitter that he wanted to learn how to do it for himself. And Brown also did everyone a service when, on a day off earlier this month, he beat Belt on the minigolf course. (Belt claims to be unbeatable at everything from minigolf to swimming to ping-pong. But as Pence told him earlier this spring, “Everyone’s unbeatable until they’re beaten.”)
“Gary is fun to be around,” Pence said. “He has a lot of charisma. He makes me laugh. I really enjoy getting to know him and hanging out with him.”
And perhaps by September, they’ll enjoy some hang time together in right-center after the 27th out.