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.”