With Giants’ September baseball approaching its final destination (aka not the playoffs) and the actual baseball games being closer to “meh” than ever before, I want to look ahead to the Willie Mac Award, which is handed out on the last Friday home game of the season.
It’s probably one of my favorite days at the yard because it gives us insight into the clubhouse — this award is voted on primarily by the players, coaches, medical staff, etc. (with a small percentage of votes being tallied via fan votes) and goes to the player that “best exemplifies the spirit and leadership consistently shown by the San Francisco legend [Willie McCovey] throughout his career”. The plaque handed to the player says “Competitive Spirit, Ability and Leadership”.
In other words, this goes to the most inspirational player on the team. In recent years, the winners have been:
- 2017: Nick Hundley (For being an all-around good guy, one of only eight players that have won in their first year as a Giant)
- 2016: Brandon Crawford/Javier Lopez (two pillars in the clubhouse, Lopez the wise veteran who provided leadership, Crawford who had a great season on the field and played through injuries to bring the team to the postseason)
- 2015: Matt Duffy (who won over the role as starting third base from veteran Casey McGehee and played almost every day that year)
- 2014: Madison Bumgarner (Hello, it was 2014, Madison Bumgarner was literally a baseball monster who was impeccable)
- 2013: Hunter Pence (For playing all 162 games with heart and hustle)
- 2012: Buster Posey (Also, hello, 2012 Buster Posey basically won every award possible)
- 2011: Ryan Vogelsong (For being the Giants’ comeback player, making the all-star team, and being a bright spot after Posey’s horrific ankle injury)
- 2010: Andres Torres (For breaking out of his role as a journeyman into an impact player on a World Series team, and also, just being Andres Torres)
Some really wonderful and deserving people have won this award. There haven’t been a lot of repeat winners, but Bengie Molina went back-to-back in 2007 and 2008 and so did Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow in 1985 and 1986. J.T Snow also won twice in non-consecutive years, in 1997 and then again in 2004.
From everything I’ve heard about this award, the guys in the clubhouse take it very seriously and try to look for teammates who really fit the bill when it comes to inspiration, leading by example, and leadership. And that brings me to the crux of this piece. I think Hunter Pence should win the Willie Mac Award this year.
Hunter Pence undoubtedly has had a rough season. He started as the every day left fielder, hurt his thumb, and spent significant time in the minor leagues. When he returned, he was primarily used off the bench, something the 12-year veteran had never done before in his career. As an athlete who is so driven that he played so hard he completely tore his right hamstring and played all 162 games in a season for two years straight, that had to be tough.
Despite his challenges, Pence still remains one of the driving forces of inspiration on this team. If you haven’t checked out this article from KNBR, it will give you an idea of how his teammates and coaches feel about him. While his numbers are not what they used to be, the Willie Mac award celebrates more than just the impact on the field or what your exit velocity is. Pence is a prime example of how your vibes and energy can lift others up, and how a kind heart and spirit can inspire in a sport that can be described as a game of failure most days.
During the A’s/Giants exhibition series before the beginning of the season, I was working late and hanging around to see which rookies had made the big league club and which ones were ultimately be sent to Sacramento to start the season. The bus was waiting outside to take the guys back.
After a lot of the regular guys had left and the rookies had finally boarded the bus, I thought everyone was gone. But then, Hunter emerged from the clubhouse. Turns out, he had stayed after the game to chat one-on-one with all the guys who didn’t make the club, letting them know they didn’t need to feel discouraged and to just keep going. He wanted them to know they were going to be okay.
When everyone has gone, the cameras have been turned off, and the scribes have stopped scribing, this is the core of who Hunter Pence is. Deeply caring, motivating, and involved. I honestly don’t think he knows how to be any other way.
That’s one anecdote that I just happened to catch but there’s no doubt in my mind there are more. The Giants have seen their share of rookies this season, many of who spent time with Pence during his stint in triple-A during his rehab assignment.
When I went to speak with Dereck Rodriguez the day before his call-up, I asked him if it was nice to have veteran guys pass through and share their knowledge — he pointed immediately to Hunter, who has talked with him about pitching from the hitter’s perspective.
While he’s no longer the guy yelling and showering a postseason scrum with sunflower seeds, working with the younger guys, being at the top of the dugouts to celebrate a rookie’s first home run even when that guy may be next in line to threaten his playing time in left field — these are things that I don’t think should be overlooked when considering who would be qualified to win this award.
Finally, the writing is pretty much on the wall for next year, and as we approach the end of the season and Pence’s five-year contract with the Giants, I can’t think of a better send off than honoring Hunter with this award. Not only would this be a nice gesture to one of the most beloved players to ever wear the orange and black, but I think it would mean a lot to the fans to be able to bid Hunter farewell and thank him for everything he’s done throughout the years — not just the obvious stuff like his on-field heroics, but also what he’s done this season behind the scenes.
I think back to Tim Lincecum’s last year with the Giants — another truly beloved player in San Francisco. While it was fairly obvious to everyone that Timmy wouldn’t be coming back the following year, it felt awkward to say goodbye in a big way. So he legitimately disappeared, appearing only once in awhile like at the Women’s March or in Hawaii, but never being able to look up into the crowd of 40,000 that loved him like a brother, and say goodbye to a city that he won championships with. If I could do it all over again, I would. I would do it with Hunter Pence while I still had the chance. And I would do it with the Willie Mac Award.
I know this is not an award that’s taken lightly or given out “just because” a player might be leaving the organization, but I do believe Hunter Pence has exemplified the qualities specific to this award. I’m not a baseball player, but watching Hunter mentor younger guys, customize handshakes with the veterans he’s been playing alongside for five seasons, and considering his charitable work off the field, I think there’s a valid case to be made.
Oh, and no one gives a heartfelt speech like Hunter. If you haven’t heard his 2013 Willie Mac Award acceptance speech, you should check out the transcript. My favorite part:
I have two goals: To go hard and to love every minute of it. God, you didn’t bless me with grace and very much style. But thank you for giving me heart and a chance.
I don’t know about you, but I want a Part II. I want to thank Hunter Pence and I want to give him a platform to say what’s in his heart to the city that embraced his weird-o scooter-ridin’, coffee-lovin’ ways. A send-off from his teammates and the fans that would say “thank you for what you’ve done, playing like your hair was on fire every day, like your limbs were made from overcooked spaghetti, and for loving every person at AT&T Park — from your teammates to the coaches to the ushers to the fans — like they were part of your family”.
Hunter Pence — he’s got my vote.