SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- With the full squad finally in place and the construction around the ballpark nearing its conclusion, the Giants finally opened the gates of Scottsdale Stadium to fans on Monday. There was a long line out front at 10 a.m., but with the exception of a playlist heavy on 90s rap, it was pretty quiet on the main field for most of the morning.
But then Hunter Pence emerged from the cage beyond the right field wall, and fans down the line started to rise and welcome him back to the organization. The applause continued all the way to the plate, and Pence delighted the fans by hitting a high homer to left to kick off his first round of batting practice.
It's 2020, and for all the change around the organization, there's still one thing the Giants can count on. Hunter Pence, now 36, remains wildly popular.
"It's great to be back, that's for sure," Pence said upon checking into camp Sunday. "It was a quick process, it popped up late. Everything worked together, and I had some good conversations with Farhan and with Kapler. It was really exciting.
"Obviously this is a home. I have a lot of history, a lot of friends, a lot of family here. The city feels like we have a great relationship -- I love it so much and I love the fan base."
Pence said the wooing process only started about three weeks before the Giants announced a one-year agreement in the hours before FanFest. It seemed to come out of nowhere, but Pence never gave up on returning to San Francisco. It felt like the Giants were giving him a grand sendoff in 2017, when he rode a custom scooter around the park and gave an emotional speech, but Pence never viewed it that way.
He quietly informed the front office that he would be interested in a reunion after he made some offseason swing changes, but the Giants preferred a different direction.
Pence went back to Texas, hit .297 with 18 homers for the Rangers, made the All-Star team, and somehow became exactly what his old team was looking for in the weeks before spring training. Farhan Zaidi, Scott Harris and Gabe Kapler knew they needed more help against left-handed pitching, and Pence thumped southpaws last year.
"Hunter had tangible swing changes that led to an excellent year with the Rangers," Kapler said. "Against left-handed pitching, he was even better. We're going to need to find ways to keep Hunter fresh and healthy and productive, and one of those ways is going to be mixing and matching. Go get the best matchup, but also give Hunter as many opportunities against left-handed pitching as possible while giving him the opportunity to earn more."
Kapler declined to elaborate this early about just how much playing time Pence is expected to get, pointing out that the spring competition is just beginning. For his part, Pence seems willing to take on a new role. He once started 331 consecutive games for Bruce Bochy, a streak that was perhaps counterproductive at times, but the best the Giants may be able to do this year is put him in a left field platoon with Alex Dickerson.
"I have to put on a new hat," Pence said. "As you grow older and shift into roles, I'm open to putting on whatever hat it takes to help us accomplish being the best team we can."
It's clear the Giants at least checked off enough playing time boxes for Pence that it wasn't a hard decision to return to an organization that's now rebuilding. The San Diego Padres came with late interest and Pence also had an opportunity to go to camp with the Houston Astros, who play in Pence's current hometown, a place where he has opened up a coffee-and-gaming shop that's his hangout spot much of the offseason.
But he chose to return to San Francisco, the city where he not only won two titles, but also met and married his wife, Alexis.
"We definitely had other opportunities and (Houston is) a city that we do live in, but I've only played with one of the players over there," Pence said. "Things just lined up. It makes a lot of sense for me to be here, we're happy to be here. We're thankful for every opportunity that was out there, but we're really happy to be home."