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Pence navigates the good and bad of Twitter

Outfielder joined the social networking site before it was embraced by most players

Pence navigates the good and bad of Twitter play video for Pence navigates the good and bad of Twitter

Privacy -- or lack thereof -- has always been an issue for athletes. It's been one of those things that is, in most cases, accepted by sports stars as part of the job during the duration of their careers.

These days, though, the line between a player's public persona and his private endeavors is a little more blurred than it has been in the past. The culprit? Social media -- mainly, Twitter -- which has been embraced by ballplayers in all of the major sports, including baseball, on both the Major and Minor League levels.

It's interesting, really, given the public nature of this communication tool. Instead of retreating to a few hours of privacy after a ballgame, a player may grab his phone, hop on Twitter and open himself up to more communication with strangers who have all kinds of opinions and an eagerness to share them.

That may be why most players from past generations haven't embraced social media as much as today's players. There are exceptions, of course, like Chipper Jones, who took to Twitter to announce he was not coming out of retirement to sign with the Yankees, and Dale Murphy, who was recently called out for "Tweeting more than a Kardashian" -- his words.

The millennial generation -- players in their 20s and early 30s, which encompasses nearly everyone currently in the big leagues -- is much more social-media savvy. And those players seemingly have embraced the opportunity to allow fans to know them on a more personal level. This can be dangerous, but it can also be fun, and if done correctly, it can increase a player's marketability, as most agents have communicated in clear terms to their clients.

Twitter has been around for a while, but it's only in the past couple of years that it has really taken off in the sports world. It wasn't that long ago when social media was largely shunned by pro athletes, not so much because they didn't think they would like it, but more because it simply scared them.

Then there were players like Giants outfielder Hunter Pence, who was turned onto social media pretty early. He joined Twitter (@hunterpence) on an off-day during the 2009 season while he was playing for the Houston Astros. Back then, he was part of a very small fraternity of players who embraced the communication mechanism.

Pence's foray into the Twitterverse didn't exactly receive positive reviews from teammates.

"It was definitely taboo," Pence said. "It was frowned upon. I got made fun of."

A loyal autograph signer since his early days as a Minor Leaguer, Pence viewed social media as another way to avail himself to the fans in a positive manner. Interaction didn't scare him, even with the drawbacks. Not everyone is nice on Twitter, obviously. Anonymity can be intoxicating. People say things they never would in a face-to-face conversation, especially given the knee-jerk reactive nature of social media. You think it, and then you type it. When used improperly, it's bullying without consequence.

Yet despite the potential pitfalls, Pence sees Twitter as good overruling the bad.

"As you see now, it's everywhere," he said. "Most everyone does it. The game today has evolved. There's a lot more interaction, there's a lot more access to us. I felt like it was a good way to be able to say something, to be able to hear from fans and respond. You want to give back, because we get so much from the fans. That was kind of the opening idea behind it."

In the four years since Pence joined Twitter, it's not a question of who's on Twitter. It's easier to count who is not.

Loosely calculated, the number of Major League players on Twitter is in the neighborhood of 400-500 (closer to the 500 mark if you include players who are retired). Considering 750 players comprise the 25-man rosters of the 30 teams, clearly the number of players who use social media far outweighs those who have declined.

How Twitter is utilized depends on the player. Some accounts are operated through a player's personal public relations representative as a way generate buzz about community involvement. Others have accounts but actually tweet very infrequently, preferring instead to follow friends and teammates as a silent observer.

Still others use Twitter for chuckles, showing the lighter side of their personalities with one-liners fitting a standup routine. D-backs pitcher Brandon McCarthy (@BMcCarthy32) keeps his more than 113,000 followers entertained with random observations such as, "If asked, I'd say the best part of the offseason is not having to end everyday by showering with all of my co-workers."

Similarly, Pence, who has more than 188,000 followers, likes to keep things light on Twitter, utilizing photo and video capabilities to illustrate his goofier side. During a stretch during Spring Training, he recorded himself singing while driving in his car. There were three -- yes, three -- head-shaking, tongue-wagging, off-key installments.

For the most part, players have handled social media properly. But there have been incidents along the way. Stories of players making racist and homophobic comments on Twitter circulate quickly when they happen, and although there are steep consequences -- suspensions, fines and, perhaps most damaging, public humiliation -- invariably, there are those who still slip and pay dearly.

The other troublesome way players can dig themselves in a hole is to take on disgruntled fans. It's a battle that usually ends with both parties looking bad.

That's where things can get tricky with Twitter. The consequence for being able to say whatever you want, whenever you want, is that people can respond back to you, and their words, like yours, are also unfiltered.

It's a basic human instinct to want to fire back and defend yourself when someone is verbally on the attack. For a player's sake, it's best that he fights the urge.

Pence understands this, and acknowledges the "dangerous" nature of Twitter that still makes him nervous.

"Any little thing you say can be misconstrued," he said. "It can be misperceived. A lot of comments can be 50-50, where half of the people like them and half don't. I would say now I'm even more apprehensive to tweet anything. It's tough to find neutral statements or statements that can appeal to everyone."

Teams take measures to make sure players understand the dos and don'ts of Twitter, but no matter how much guidance is offered, the basic rule is simple: Tweet at your own risk.

It's essential for players to understand fans don't live by the same rules, or suffer the same consequences.

"There's a lot of good," Pence said. "But you can definitely get yourself into trouble on there. It's an avenue for a lot of fans to hash out anger or angst toward you. Those are things you have to overlook and be positive."

Pence admitted he does read through most of his followers' tweets to him, but he takes criticism in stride: "The fans have a voice, and that's just the way it is," he said.

But if ridicule is part of the job, so is fan approval.

"There's a lot of opportunities for success and for praise," Pence said. "You try to stay as even-keeled and focused on the game, and just be there for the fans and do the best you can to make it a fun thing."

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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