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


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.”

No. 79? No. 53? Before they were stars, Giants wore random numbers


No. 79? No. 53? Before they were stars, Giants wore random numbers

SCOTTSDALE — A couple of veterans walked past a clubhouse TV earlier in camp and saw that the Giants and Padres were tied heading into the bottom of the 10th of an exhibition game. The Padres infielders were just standing around, and there was not yet a new pitcher on the mound. 

“It’s that time when No. 99 comes in to pitch,” one of the players joked as he headed home for the day.

A few seconds later, a big left-hander took the mound. He was, in fact, wearing No. 99, and in his inning on the mound he would face a No. 74 (Aramis Garcia) and No. 78 (Steven Duggar). This is the norm for spring training, when dozens of players — including teenagers and journeymen still hanging around the low minors — get into every game. That leads to action between numbers you would never see in a normal game. The Giants had 60 players in camp, plus 10 coaches and staff members with numbers. Throw in their 10 retired numbers and the unofficially retired ones (25, 55, etc.) and, well, there aren’t a whole lot of choices left. 

If Duggar makes the Opening Day roster, he’ll get an upgrade from his lineman’s number. Ditto for Garcia, who could be Buster Posey’s backup as soon as next season. Still, a taste of big league action doesn’t guarantee a normal number in camp, when young players regularly find themselves back at the end of the line. 

Ryder Jones wore 83 in camp last year and 63 in the big leagues. When he showed up this year, with 150 big league at-bats under his belt, he was told that he would have to wait until the end of the spring to upgrade. Players with more service time (think No. 2 Chase d’Arnaud or No. 19 Josh Rutledge) get priority, at least until all the cuts are made. Jones said he has a few numbers in mind for his next stint in the big leagues, but he won’t be picky. 

“Anything under 40 works,” he said, smiling. 

The steady climb toward single digits happens to just about everybody. Long before Brandon Crawford’s became @bcraw35, he wore 79 in his first camp. He moved up to 53 after that and Mike Murphy flipped that to 35 when Crawford became the big league shortstop. Hunter Pence doesn’t remember his first spring training number with the Astros, but he knows it was in the low eighties. Joe Panik wore 66 the first time he spent a spring at Scottsdale Stadium. “I was an offensive lineman,” he joked. Tyler Beede, now on the cusp of his big league debut, got promoted from 63 to 32 when he arrived last spring, only to swap to 38 this year because of some in-season shifting. When Pablo Sandoval arrived last summer, Steven Okert switched from 48 to 32.

Then there are those who have only known one jersey. Posey was a can’t-miss prospect when he arrived and doesn’t remember wearing anything other than 28. Brandon Belt was a top-25 prospect when he came to camp for the first time, and he’s been 9 since that day. Madison Bumgarner wore 40 in his first big league camp because he had already made his big league debut, but somewhere in the team archives, there are probably a few photos of a 19-year-old Bumgarner wearing something else. 

“The previous spring I came up to pitch a few times,” Bumgarner said. “I’m pretty sure I had a different number every time I came over and I’m pretty sure it was always in the eighties.”

There were seven Giants in the eighties this spring. Duggar was one of two top prospects — Chris Shaw inherited Crawford’s old 79 — to come close, and he didn’t mind one bit. He’s not thinking too far ahead, even though he could be a big leaguer in eight days. 

“I’ll take anything if I’m in the big leagues,” he said. “I’ll take No. 112 if that’s what they give me.”

Will Clark says Steven Duggar can play 'Gold Glove center field right now,' trusts the bat too


Will Clark says Steven Duggar can play 'Gold Glove center field right now,' trusts the bat too

Will Clark won his first and only Gold Glove at first base for the Giants at age 27 in 1991. It was Clark's sixth year in the major leagues. 

Steven Duggar won't have to wait that long to win the biggest hardware for his defense in Clark's eyes. 

"He can play Gold Glove center field right now in the big leagues. He can flat out go get it in center field," Clark said on the Giants' prospect Tuesday on KNBR. "He can definitely, definitely play a Gold Glove center field." 

Clark, who now serves a role in the Giants' front office after playing in five straight All-Star Games for his former team from 1988-92, has watched Duggar closely for more than just this spring training. When asked about his feelings on the 24-year-old, Clark made them clear right away. 

"I've seen Steve parts of the last two seasons in the minor leagues and I am definitely a Steven Duggar fan," Clark said. 

The question with Duggar has always been his bat. He has elite speed, gets great jumps in center field and everyone from Bruce Bochy to Buster Posey has praised his ability to track down fly balls. 

"His thing is, how quick is he going to make the adjustment in the big leagues with the pitching. I know there's a lot of people that are asking that question right now," Clark. 

Count The Thrill as one of the leaders in Camp Duggar. He joined many others in complimenting his glove left and right. But what he has to say about the Clemson product's bat is what puts him over the top. 

"He's succeeded at each level he's been at," Clark pointed out. "He will do it at the major league level and I'm kind of staking my reputation on that."

This is confidence -- to say the least -- coming from someone who was a .303 lifetime hitter and bashed 284 home runs in 15 seasons. 

Over three years in the minor leagues, Duggar is a .292 career hitter with a .384 on-base percentage and .427 slugging percentage. Duggar started off scorching hot this spring with the Giants, but has cooled down with the Cactus League soon coming to a close. In 16 games, Duggar is slashing .250/.353/.545 and has shown more pop with four home runs.