It’s a long season, baseball. Plenty of time for goofy.
Each season takes on its own character, full of slogans and sayings and mascots and memes.
These cultural touchstones pop up like summertime wildfires, fanned by the winds of social media. The T-shirts and hats follow closely behind. Sadly, to baseball purists, this is the stuff that sticks.
You may not remember whether the Giants won or lost Game 4 of the 2010 World Series. But you’ll always remember Aubrey Huff‘s bright red rally thong. You probably don’t recall who pitched the division-clinching game for the A’s in 2013. But you’ll surely remember doing the Bernie Lean in celebration.
It’s all part of modern-day baseball, a sport whose fans celebrate quirk and use it to forge community. Think of it as the yin to the sabermetrics’ yang. For every baseball fan who pores over wonky statistics like WHIP and WAR, there’s another fan growing a bushy beard. Or whistling the “Careless Whisper” sax solo. Or wearing a Panda hat.
So it was last week for both Bay Area ballclubs. A lot happened on the diamond – good and bad – but you won’t remember the details this time next summer.
You will remember Hunter Pence and the Rally Possum.
If anyone embodies quirk, it’s Hunter Pence. Awkwardly athletic, yet remarkably productive, the Giants’ right fielder inadvertently set off a cultural phenomenon Aug. 1. Having just arrived in New York for a four-game series against the Mets, Pence posted a photo of himself on Twitter. He was sitting in a Manhattan diner in the picture, and the accompanying tweet read: “These pretzels are making me thirsty.” You “Seinfeld” fans will recognize the line from the hit ’90s sitcom. Kramer said it a lot. And so did Elaine, Jerry and George.
Well, for whatever reason, Mets fans remembered that line, too. And they apparently took umbrage with Pence using it. They showed up at Citi Field with signs targeting Pence for four straight games. Why did the Seinfeld photo get them riled up? Hard to say.
Much like the Seinfeld show itself, the theme of the signs was … well … nothing. Absurdist humor that would have made Eugene Ionesco proud. A series-long string of non sequiturs.
“Hunter Pence can’t parallel park.”
“Hunter Pence puts ketchup on his hot dog.”
“Hunter Pence likes The Godfather 3.”
And then there was the ultimate New York insult:
“Hunter Pence eats pizza with a fork.”
For four straight games, three of which ended in Giants victories, the strangely hilarious onslaught continued in Queens. It soon spread to Twitter, where the “#hunterpencesigns” movement took off. Hundreds of tweets flooded in, one stranger than the next. By the time the Giants got to Milwaukee, Brewers fans had joined in, bringing Midwestern quirk to the mix.
“Hunter Pence DVRs Full House reruns.”
“Hunter Pence lives in a van down by the river.”
“Hunter Pence has sharknado insurance.”
By the end of the week, thousands upon thousands of people contributed their own jokes, some funny, some not. Pence had become the unlikely conduit for a national exercise in pointless humor.
A lesser man would have folded under such intense scrutiny. But Pence stood strong, giving it back as good as he was getting.
He tweeted out his own versions on the theme, telling his 245,866 Twitter followers, “Hunter Pence returns library books before they are due so others can enjoy them as well.”
Pence embraced the attention rather than trying to squelch it, keeping the meme good-natured and fun.
“I do enjoy it. It’s funny and the fans are extremely creative,” Pence told my colleague and Giants beat writer Henry Schulman. “It’s definitely wild, but I’m having fun with it. I love that kind of humor.”
Henry asked which line was his favorite. Pence, who follows a strict “paleo diet,” said there’s a photo of him eating kale with the following caption, “Hunter Pence eats kale so you don’t have to.”
There’s a great lesson in social media management here, courtesy of a major-league ballplayer.
“It’s like Hunter Pence is not me anymore,” said Pence. “It’s like this other entity. It’s an extremely interesting entity.”
The whole thing is so baseball. So excellent. Look for Giants fans to bring their own twist to the trend during next week’s homestand.
Hunter Pence is a household name.
Over in Oakland, the A’s were fairly oblivious to the Pence phenomenon. Despite owning the best record in baseball, the team was struggling through its homestand. The starting pitching was suddenly shaky. The potent bats went quiet.
What was wrong with the Amazings? Nothing a little possum couldn’t cure.
Having lost two of three to Kansas City, the A’s were struggling to score runs in the first of three games against Tampa Bay. Newly acquired Jeff Samardzija pitched brilliantly on this fateful Monday night, but the A’s couldn’t pull away. The game was in the 10th inning, deadlocked two-apiece.
Enter the Rally Possum. The small marsupial appeared on the field, just beyond the A’s bullpen on the left-field line. It scampered around a little bit on the warning track before disappearing under the stands. It was a brief appearance, but it made its mark.
The A’s came up swinging in the bottom of the 10th. Sam Fuld got a base hit. John Jaso and Josh Donaldson walked. And with two outs and two strikes on him – facing former A’s closer Grant Balfour – catcher Derek Norris got the game-winning hit.
Within minutes, fans were tweeting about the #RallyPossum. People drew cartoons and Photoshopped Oakland hats on possum pictures. Someone created a Twitter account on the possum’s behalf, naming him “Olmedo The O.Possum,” a duel homage to O.co Coliseum and the greatness of former Athletic Olmedo Saenz.
Once more, an Internet phenomenon was born from ballpark quirk. A’s fans now have a possum to rally around.
In the clubhouse, the reaction was a bit more tepid.
“I thought it was a rat,” manager Bob Melvin told me later in the week.
“We’ve seen it before,” said reliever Dan Otero. “It came out one time while the pitchers were stretching in the outfield.”
During the day? Aren’t possums nocturnal? “Yeah,” deadpanned Otero. “We haven’t thought about it too much.”
Team philosopher Brandon Moss tried to assess the deeper meaning of the Rally Possum.
“We play 162 games, man,” said Moss. “We’ll get behind anything. I love that kind of stuff … but then again, I’m kind of ADD.”
A’s fans will note that if such a phenomenon were to happen over at AT&T Park, Giants management would be selling possum hats and T-shirts the very next day. That kind of thing could grow old among the more cynical fans of Oakland, who like to control their own message.
“Well, if the people in Anaheim aren’t sick of that rally monkey,” said Moss, “I guess nothing gets old.”
Good point. The Angels’ rally monkey dates to 2002, the season they beat the Giants in the World Series.
But if anything will help the A’s hold off the charging Angels and their annoying monkey, it’s the Rally Possum.
Just remember: Hunter Pence eats possum.
Forget the baseball, remember A’s possum and Pence’s signs – SFGate