In the late 1990s, a father walked into a baseball facility in Arlington, Texas, and explained that his high school senior needed a new glove. Money was tight, so the dad offered to trade the owner some sweatshirts.
"Your kid needs a glove? Here?" Chris Gay, the owner, replied. And then he reached into his stockpile and picked out a winner.
Years later, a wiry strong college kid returned to the facility and introduced himself.
"Do you remember flipping a glove to a dad?' Hunter Pence asked. "Well, that was my dad."
So began a friendship and mentorship that helped turn Pence into one of the Giants' most popular stars. Pence said thank you in grand style Tuesday night, saluting Gay's many acts of kindness at the second annual Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards in San Francisco.
The ceremony gave Pence and other Bay Area sport stars such as Stephen Curry of the Warriors, Derek Carr of the Raiders, Torrey Smith of the 49ers and Stephen Vogt of the A's a chance to pay back the people who made an impact on their careers. The taped ceremony will air Sunday in the Bay Area.
For Pence, there was an obvious choice -- and it wasn't just because of the glove.
"This guy just embodies community," the three-time All-Star. "He's teamwork. He's giving. He's family. He's integrity."
Long before Pence became the irregular heartbeat for two Giants' World Series winners, he was a lightly regarded prospect. He didn't get much attention coming out of Arlington High and spent a year as a D.H. at Texarkana Junior College. Then he learned the outfield at the University of Texas-Arlington, which meant returning home to live with his parents.
That's when Pence tapped again into the generosity of Gay. Pence introduced himself at the "Cover All Bases" training facility because he'd heard that UTA players could work out there for free.
"I said, 'Absolutely, you can come in any time you want,' " Gay, 46, recalled.
And then he laughed: "I didn't know that meant every day, three hours a day for two years."
To the surprise of no one, Pence was an energetic college kid. The future turbo-charged Giants outfielder spent hours hitting off a tee, all alone. After that, Gay would throw him batting practice. After that, they'd duel at the ping-pong table.
After that, the phone would ring.
"It got to the point where my wife would call at 11 o'clock at night and say, 'OK, tell Hunter to go home. You need to go home,' " Gay said.
Having free reign of a batting facility was no small thing for Pence. His father, Howard, supported his family ably but mostly worked in the fluctuating oil business. Sometimes there was plenty of money; sometimes there was no room for anything beyond the necessities. Pence even resisted contact lenses in high school because they were too expensive.
So an all-access pass to the batting cages?
"I saw it as a dreamland," Pence said. "I just wanted to be there. All the time. I know now more than ever that you can't ever master hitting, but that was my goal."
Both men had tough years in 2015. Gay, a former left-hander in the Chicago White Sox organization, underwent surgery for cancer, and Pence reacted to the news with constant texts and well wishes. Two days after the operation, Pence suffered a fractured forearm that derailed his season. "Well, I guessed we're hooked a little more than we thought," Gay said.
Now, player and protege are on the mend. Gay served as the Home Run Derby pitcher at Pence's baseball camp in Houston in December, and the comeback looked complete for both of them. "All the San Francisco fans will be happy to know that he hit 18 home runs in 2 minutes," Gay said. "So he's healthy, and he'll be back just fine."
Pence played only 52 games last season, but the Giants expect a big bounce back in 2016. In the least, he'll have whatever glove he wants. The outfielder will make $18.5 million this season as part of the five-year $90 million extension he signed in 2013.
The priceless part was the phone call in which Pence called Gay to tell him about Tuesday night's honor.
"It was a moment of bliss and outrageous joy," Pence said. "Chris is just always so positive. Even when he got the news about cancer, it was just, 'I'm going to beat this no matter what it takes. It's not that big a deal.'
"That's what I loved about being around him. He just made everything so much fun."
On that front, Giants fans can see the influence.
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