Giants

Pence to honor coach who 'changed my life in major ways'

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Pence to honor coach who 'changed my life in major ways'

Programming note: The "Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards" -- featuring Bay Area stars Stephen Vogt, Stephen Curry, Hunter Pence, Derek Carr, Torrey Smith and Tara VanDerveer -- will air on Jan. 31 at 7:30pm on CSN Bay Area and at 11pm on CSN California.

SAN FRANCISCO — Hunter Pence walked into Cover All Bases more than a decade ago and asked the owner, Chris Gay, if it was true that players from the University of Texas at Arlington had access to the batting cage. Gay, an alum of UTA, had no idea what he was getting himself into when he said yes.

“I said you can come in anytime you want, not knowing he was going to be there almost every day and every night for eight months straight,” Gay said. “I started throwing him BP and started playing ping-pong with him, and it turned into my wife calling at 11 at night and saying, ‘Send Hunter home, it’s time for you to come home.’”

Gay would start throwing to Pence as his facility was closing down in the evening, and when Pence, who grew up near the Arlington, Texas facility, couldn’t possibly take any more swings, the action would shift to the ping-pong table. The rest of Pence’s development is a bit more well known. He turned into a second-round pick out of UTA, an All-Star with the Houston Astros, and a World Series champion with the Giants.

He has never forgotten those long sessions in the cage, though, and tonight Pence will honor Gay at the “Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards” ceremony, held in San Francisco. The event honors influential coaching figures in the lives of some of the Bay Area’s biggest stars.

Pence is honoring Gay for much more than the tens of thousands of baseballs the former minor league left-hander has thrown to him over the years. He said Gay stands out because of his integrity, his commitment to making the game fun, and the way he treats everyone he comes into contact with.

“I’ve never played on any of his teams but he changed my life in major ways just by being a role model,” Pence said. “Just by being good to people, not only to everyone that comes into his batting cage, but to the community. He lets all these high school kids and college kids come into (Cover All Bases). The way he impacts the community is always something I've admired."

Gay first impacted Pence’s career when he was a senior at Arlington High — but Gay didn’t know what he had done until six years later. Howard Pence, Hunter’s father, walked into Cover All Bases in search of a shortstop glove for Hunter, who had been an outfielder the previous three years. At a time when money was a little tight, Howard asked Gay if he could make a trade for the glove.

“I’ve always said to parents that a kid is not going to not play because they don’t have the money,” Gay recalled. “I’ll find a way to do something. His dad was a really nice guy … I reached down and grabbed a glove and flipped it to his dad.”

Years later, Hunter asked a surprising question during a dinner with Gay.

“He goes, ‘Do you remember some guy asking you for a glove? That was my dad,'” Gay said. “When I found out it was Hunter’s dad, I was kind of shocked.”

The two continued working together even after Pence became a professional. Gay spent three straight winters helping Pence prepare for spring training with the Astros, often simulating intense five-inning games in the cage. Gay recalls a young Pence resembling the "Full Throttle" outfielder Giants fans have fallen in love with over the past four seasons.

“He’s 100 percent all the time,” Gay said. “He’s 100 percent with baseball, it’s his passion. He’s one of those unique players who feels like he has to earn every cent they’re paying him.”

Gay was a left-handed pitcher in the White Sox system for two years — he happened to be in spring training at the same time as Michael Jordan — before starting Cover All Bases. The facility has been open for 19 years, and Gay also coaches three youth teams in addition to helping Pence with his own baseball camp every December in Houston. During Pence’s camp, he sees one of Major League Baseball’s best right fielders show the same kind of dedication that Gay did years ago when Pence came looking for a cage.

“He sits and hits with every single kid in the camp and stays there the entire day,” Gay said. “You won’t find that out of big league guys. He’s there from 8:30 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon.”

As Gay talks of Pence’s passion for teaching, an obvious question comes to mind: Hasn’t the longtime coach ever felt the urge to smooth out some of the wrinkles in Pence’s own swing, one you would never teach at a camp?

“Through all of Hunter’s violence in his swing, if you break it down from the swing point to the end point, it’s really pretty,” Gay said. “It’s just how he gets there. He stays so flat through the zone for a really long time, and he has unbelievable power. Why would you change that? When he hits the ball, it makes a different sound than a lot of people can make.”

For years, the two have talked of taking that sound to a home run derby, but Pence never came close to getting a shot last season. Injuries derailed his year from the start of spring training, but shortly after after the Giants were eliminated, an excited Pence and his then-girlfriend, Alexis Cozombolidis, reached out to Gay via FaceTime. (Gay thought the couple was calling to tell him they were engaged, but his prediction was off by a few weeks.)

“I need you to do me a favor,” Pence told Gay. “They’re doing this awards show in California and they asked me to nominate the person I think is the most influential coach in my life -- and it’s you.”

Pence considers Gay more than just a friend and mentor. As the two prepared to watch the Warriors host the Spurs on Monday night, Pence referred to the 46-year-old Gay as “my second dad.” That made for an easy decision when Pence was asked to give out the award.

“A lot of times those guys that work the hardest aren’t necessarily rewarded,” Pence said of Gay. “But they impact kids in so many ways beyond baseball.”

Gary Brown never recovered on the field from 2015 DFA: ‘Hurt me to my core’

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AP

Gary Brown never recovered on the field from 2015 DFA: ‘Hurt me to my core’

There was a time when Gary Brown was considered the Giants’ top prospect – their center fielder of the future. Hype was never higher than in 2011, when the fleet-footed 22-year-old set a franchise record with 188 hits in 131 games, earning California League Rookie of the Year honors with the San Jose Giants in his first full minor league campaign.

But six seasons and seven major league at-bats later, Brown’s professional baseball career ended at 28 years old.

“I feel like I let my emotions get the best of me in the years after that (2011 season),” Brown told NBC Sports Bay Area in an exclusive phone interview. “I think I started to believe the hype that everyone started to give to me.”

Brown never matched his magical .336-season in High-A ball with 14 home runs plus 53 stolen bases, and then struggled finding a routine with the rigors of the Pacific Coast League’s travel schedule once he reached Triple-A. Despite three hits in his seven at-bats as a September call-up with the Giants in 2014, Brown was designated for assignment on March 31, 2015.

Brown’s career spiraled playing the draining waiver game. Unsuccessful stints with the Cardinals and Angels sent Brown to the land of the last chance: Independent ball in the Atlantic League.

“It was not fun for me for quite a few years. I wasn’t a very happy person,” Brown said. “After I got DFA'd by the Giants, that really took a toll on me. I never really recovered from that, so I was kind of stuck in the past and things kind of just got away from me. 

“I was kind of heartbroken to be honest. I mean, it hurt me to my core.”

Through tumultuous career turns, the Southern California native never turned on the team that drafted him 24th overall in 2010.

“I'm thankful for the opportunity the Giants gave me. No matter how big or small mine was, I am very thankful” Brown said emphatically. “I definitely wish I could have shown what I feel like my true potential was, but it didn't work out that way. 

“I still root for the Giants. All my friends with the Giants, I'm still pulling for them. They run that organization so well. I have no ill intentions or anything bad to say about the Giants organization.” 

Far removed from his days with the Giants, Brown found new life with the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs in 2016. Brown batted .249 and returned to the team in 2017. He started strong with a .298 batting average in 31 games while having fun for the first time in years, but injuries struck at an inopportune time.

Chronic aches in his hip joints and intense back spasms, in addition to a frustrating lack of interest from MLB teams and the fact he and his wife had twins on the way, spurred Brown to retirement in the middle of the season on July 5.

“Retirement has nothing to do with the lack of competitiveness (of the Atlantic League). It was the distance and the time away, matching the minor league salary,” Brown said. “Going back to that makes it really hard on the family and when you get older it really becomes about what you value more.”

The player he once was is gone, but the person he is has only grown. There’s one piece of advice which goes beyond the diamond that Brown was sure to pass on to the next wave of future top Giants prospects.

“Never stop making adjustments,” Brown said ruefully.

Days away from turning 29 on Sept. 28 and out of baseball for the first time in his life, Brown is certainly making his own.

***

Part 2 of our interview with Gary Brown focusing on where he is now in his life will be released Friday on NBCSportsBayArea.com.

Matt Moore blanks Rockies, continues late-season surge

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AP

Matt Moore blanks Rockies, continues late-season surge

SAN FRANCISCO — Matt Moore knew there was something different about his final home start at AT&T Park this season, and not just the fact that he received a loud ovation as he walked off the mound in the seventh. Moore noted later that the outing was the first shutout he has been a part of this year. In fact, it was the first time in 30 starts that he walked off the mound without having allowed a run. 

“I guess it’s better late than never,” he said. 

The Giants are hoping it’s actually a preview of things to come. They counted on Moore to be a big part of their 2017 push, but instead, he likely will finish with the worst ERA of any full-time starter in the National League. Still, general manager Bobby Evans has informed Moore that his 2018 option will be picked up, something that Moore appreciated given the time of year. 

“I always pictured myself here,” he said. 

Whether coincidence or some kind of “weight off the shoulders” situation, Moore’s first start since the public revealing of the decision was his most encouraging of the year. Facing a good lineup, and a team that needed a win desperately, he pitched six shutout innings. The Giants beat the Rockies 4-0. 

Moore was already showing signs of life, with a 3.76 ERA over his seven previous appearances. Bruce Bochy viewed this as another step forward. 

“It’s been getting better and better with each start,” he said. “What he did really well today was on the arm side. He had good balance to both sides of the plate.”

Moore peppered the outside corner with fastballs, and he credited catcher Nick Hundley with stealing a few strikes. The plan allowed Moore to put hitters away in big spots, one of three points of emphasis he brought into the second half. The other two: limiting lefties and getting ahead of hitters.

That’s Moore’s roadmap back to being the player the Giants acquired. For the team as a whole, the roadmap back to relevance is similar to Wednesday’s plan. This is not a home-run hitting lineup, but the Giants are 47-21 when scoring four runs, and Wednesday was a reminder of the different paths to that magical number. 

Brandon Crawford had a solo homer, but the first two runs came on sacrifice flies and the fourth on a walk-wild pitch-single combination. Bochy said he liked “the brand of ball” his team played.

“They executed so well today,” he said. “It’s just good baseball, and that’s what I felt good about.”