A Beautiful Stress

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Hunter Pence, Outfielder / San Francisco Giants - The Players' Tribune

The image that flashes most vividly in my mind from Game 7 of the World Series last year is of Madison Bumgarner trotting out to the mound on two days rest. Standing in the outfield, you could sense the whole crowd in Kansas City, which had been going crazy up to that point, suddenly getting quiet. Pitch by pitch, out by out, inning by inning, I got to watch Bum and Buster control that game, and it was beautiful.

When Pablo Sandoval caught the final out to seal the World Series, it was a moment of absolute bliss, but also tremendous relief. The postseason is filled with so much tension that I think when it ends for a team, whether it’s with a win or a loss, there’s some sense of ease. Time slows down a lot in October because the stakes are so much higher. Just going to sleep takes forever because you can’t wait to wake up.

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It’s definitely stressful, but it’s a beautiful stress.

In two of the last three seasons, I’ve been fortunate to come out on the other side of the experience with a World Series ring. Because of this, I’ll often get asked if there’s some sort of “secret sauce” behind what makes a winning baseball team tick. People want to know what the Giants are doing differently.

After spending a few years with the club, I can tell you with confidence that there is no secret.

At this level of baseball, there are many experts but still no masters. While it would be nice to be able to take credit for two World Series victories, it would also be disingenuous. Our team’s success relies on Brian Sabean making the right moves as much as Buster Posey calling the right pitches. To suggest that there’s any single strategy or mentality that makes one team better than others is just looking at it from the wrong angle.

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A baseball team is like an orchestra. It’s many individuals, split up in small groups, performing very different tasks towards a common goal — many minds working together to create one sound. If one of the players is struggling, it might not be readily apparent in the final product, but if a section isn’t in rhythm, it can bring down the entire performance.

If you let your mind get wrapped up in the things that happen that are beyond your control — such as a wild pitch that breaks your arm, for example — you’ll lose focus on the bigger picture. I only feel like I’ve lost if I go into a game without being in the best physical and mental state possible. In the many elimination games I’ve played in throughout my career, it isn’t the thought of losing that has driven me. You can’t control results, so I don’t let results control my emotions.

What gets lost in this desire to find the secret behind winning is that success isn’t a formula or an equation — there are no exact inputs that give you the desired result. What’s closer to the truth is that so many minds — very different minds with different expertises — need to work in unison to make a team function at the highest level, and even then, the final result is often left up to factors that can’t be controlled. A baseball game often isn’t decided by which team is better so much as which team is in control of the most variables that determine the outcome – coaching, hitting, fielding, scouting, fitness and many, many others.

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Most of the guys who were on the Giants last year also won the World Series with the team in 2012, when we faced six elimination games before even making it to the Series. The gravity of those contests and the adrenaline rushing through everyone made it such a remarkable human experience. Being on the brink of elimination, oddly enough, brings on a sense of calm in our clubhouse. Of course, for a game like that, there are nerves, but generally before we take the field, everyone in the locker room is very quiet and focused — mostly just enjoying the moment. We play baseball our entire lives just hoping for the opportunity to play in games like that, so when they happen, it’s almost surreal.

If you’re really putting your heart and soul into this game, you learn a lot throughout your career. Growing as a baseball player isn’t dissimilar to when you’re growing up as a child in that it’s difficult to notice your progress as it’s happening. But there’s no doubt that I see baseball much differently now than I did nine years ago when I first entered the majors. Your success in this game is almost entirely predicated on your ability to react, whether it’s to a difficult pitch or a difficult loss. Either way, you just have to be able to get around it quickly and focus on the next one.

Most Major League players have a true love for baseball, and because of that, everyone really strives to get a crack at those games when all the pressure is on. The extra layer of satisfaction comes from knowing that you got there because you’re surrounded by guys who want it just as badly as you do.

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I like to keep it simple. I trust the process of my trainers and coaches. The goal is to work smart. I have to give credit to the excellence and hard work of many people for my success: Nicole Gabriel and Carl Cochan for my strength training, Sir Henry "Bam Bam" Muellens for my hitting and Chad Chop for all around pushing me to strive for more. Everything I do for the game of baseball brings me so much joy. I am grateful I have the opportunity to do what I love.Photographs by Jed Jacobsohn/The Players' Tribune

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