Torii Hunter: Playing Happy
Torii Hunter: Playing Happy
By John Rosengren
Torii Hunter won’t forget the first major league baseball game he saw in person: August 22, 1997, Minnesota Twins vs. Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards.
He played in it.
Top of the ninth, one out, his Twins trailing, Hunter got the call to pinch run for All-Star catcher Terry Steinbach. Hunter, a 21-year-old from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, who had never come closer than a television broadcast to the big leagues before getting called up for the game, trotted nervously across the Camden Yards infield. “I’m supposed to run for you,” the rookie said to the 35-year old vet standing on first base.
Steinbach didn’t budge. “No you’re not.”
Hunter stood in front of Steinbach and 50,000 Oriole fans like a lost child. Have I made a mistake? What do I do now?
Steinbach smiled and surrendered his spot. “Just kidding. Have fun.”
Naysayers told Hunter that he might catch on as a fifth outfielder, yet he’s blossomed into one of the game’s top players. He’s a 27-year-old man playing with the wide-eyed joy and wonderment of a child. “It’s a dream come true,” he says with a pinch-me-to-let-me-know-this-is-real-tone.
In the age of disillusionment with professional sports, and at a time when labor disputes, market inequities and bloated egos hobble the national pastime, the Twins’ Torii Hunter resuscitates the notion that baseball exists to make boyhood dreams come alive.
The happy Hunter will forever be linked with megastar Barry Bonds because of a single play under extraordinary circumstances. One year ago, in the first inning of the 2002 All-Star Game, Bonds clobbered one of his signature blasts. Hunter, the American League’s starting center fielder, broke for the wall, leaped and plucked the ball out of the stratosphere–rendering what could have been the game’s winning run an inning-ending out.
Hunter has made more spectacular fielding plays, but he recognizes that the stars lined up to make that catch the one that defines his career. He humbly reflects on his baseball immortality. “Kids are going to remember that.” He furrows his brow. “Somebody’s going to remember me for something. It’s a dream come true.”
Dare to approach Bonds in a restaurant, and he’s likely to bite off your head. Spot Hunter eating dinner with his family at a local Twin Cities restaurant, as a middle-aged fan did last September, and the younger star will take it as a kind gesture. Behind Hunter’s All-Star season, the Twins had just clinched the AL’s Central Division and were headed to the playoffs. The man, a loyal Twins fan for 30 seasons, told Hunter he was proud of him. Hunter beamed in front of his wife and their two children. “The year before, nobody knew me,” he says. “Now everybody knows who we are. It’s cool.”
The Twins’ recent success has paralleled the power-hitting, smooth-fielding Hunter’s performance. After his pinch-running debut in ’97, Hunter returned to the minors. In his first two full seasons in the majors, he put up modest numbers; the Twins finished dead last in the Central Division both years. In 2001, his breakout season, he clubbed a team-high 27 homers and won a Gold Glove; the Twins finished above .500 for the first time in nine years. In 2002, Hunter established himself as an All-Star by leading the Twins in home runs (29), RBI (94) and stolen bases (23). The Twins won 94 regular season games–the most since their world championship season of ’91 – finished on top of the Central Division and came within three victories of playing in the World Series.
Minnesota fans embraced the lovable gang, with Hunter the primary object of their affection. When the fan told Hunter he would be glued to his television with the devotion of a soap opera junkie, and would follow every minute so as not to miss any part of the playoff drama, he spoke for the entire state. The Twins charmed Minnesotans with an opening round upset of the Oakland Athletics. People who didn’t know a bunt from a balk felt their hearts break when the Twins fell to the Anaheim Angels in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. The team’s advertising slogan had been, “Get to know ‘em,” and by the end, fans were glad they had.
Inside the Twins’ clubhouse on a Friday afternoon in May, before any fans have filtered into the Metrodome, Twins’ outfielder Jacque Jones asks his buddy Hunter to autograph a bat. Someone asks if Jones wants it for his personal collection. Jones scoffs and shakes his head. “Sign my bat? That’d devalue my collection.”
Hunter stands at his locker and says over his shoulder, “I’ll kick your bones when he’s gone.”
The good-natured banter betrays the friendship between two young men. Hunter’s ebullient personality and hard play–he once crashed through a minor league outfield wall to make a catch–are infectious. “He’s the centerpiece of our defense, able to make those highlight film plays,” says Twins manager Ron Gardenshire. “He brings a special smile to our clubhouse, whether he’s doing good or bad, and that picks everybody up.”
Last January, Hunter signed a four-year contract worth $32 million. That’s a heavy chunk of change for anyone, but especially for a kid who grew up in a house sometimes lacking electricity. The first thing Hunter says he was going to do was buy his mother, Shirley, a new house–which he’s now done. He calls that another dream come true.
As a kid, the four-sport high school star wanted out of Pine Bluff. He wanted to rise above the rural town of 50,000’s proverty and crime, but he never meant to turn his back on his roots. In addition to looking out for his mother, Hunter brought a townhome in Texas for his three brothers. He’s also establishing a foundation that will fund after-school programs intended to keep Pine Bluff’s underprivileged kids off the streets.
Hunter’s mother, a former elementary school teacher, raised him to do right. He still leans on her. In good times and in bad, he punches “Mama” into his cell phone and laughs or cries with her. “That’s something people don’t know about me.” Hunter smiles unashamedly. “I’m a mama’s boy.”
He credits Mama with keeping him in baseball while he languished in the minors for four years. He made a happier call home last summer when he made the All-Star team. He was so excited, he couldn’t sleep. In his hotel room on a road trip, tears came to his eyes. It was, as he says, another dream come true. “Oh man, I can’t even tell you how it is,” he says “I played happy.”
Hunter’s peers cautioned him that tough times might lie ahead. Now that he’d made a name for himself, pitchers would throw him junk and let the aggressive swinger get himself out. “Little did I know it would happen so soon,” he says.
The 2003 season started like a bad dream. In April, he struggled to bat his weight, hit only three homers and made two fielding errors; he’d made only three all of last season. The third-place Twins (12-14) floundered six games out of first place. He knew where to turn. Mama told him, “That is just a test. See if you can stay strong. Before you know it, you’re going to be happy again.”
Seated at his locker on a May afternoon before the first of a three-game series with the Chicago White Sox, Hunter smiles as he recounts his mother’s advice. He’s taken it to heart.
That night, he powers a three-run homer in a rout of the Sox. The next night, he steals the show with another mad dash to the center field wall, another might leap and another nab a home run-bound ball to save the Twins’ 3-1 win. The following day, he scores the tying run in the Twins’ eventual 3-2 victory. With the sweep, Hunter turns around his season, and the Twins surge to first place.
Mama was right. Her boy aced the test, and he played happy once again.
© John Rosengren