LAKELAND, Fla. -- What people know, what people remember, is the October freeze frame that will live on forever:
What people don’t know is the price the Detroit Tigers’ right fielder paid for taking that tumble.
“It took me two months to get right from that,” Hunter said Saturday. “Two months. That’s something a lot of people don’t know about. It hurt. I went to rehab. Did everything. Muscle tension. I had a lot of stuff going on.
“My lower back was locked up,” he said. “I had to get soft tissue work for two months. Getting out of bed was tough.”
Not all of those aches and pains were the result of just that one play, Hunter said. He already had laid the groundwork for that agony in the ALDS against Oakland, where “I beat myself up.”
“But that play there, wow,” he said, of his Fenway adventure. “I had a concussion. I had all kinds of pain. I got a cortisone shot. It was tough.”
Hunter is fine now, he said, as he enters his second season with the Tigers and his 18th in the big leagues, at age 38. But hard as he tries, he can’t seem to escape the world’s fascination with his upside-down journey into the lore of October.
He’s cool with the people who remember it as a spectacular effort to rob Big Papi of a game-tying grand slam. It’s the people who think that was some sort of comedy show that get to him sometimes.
So, when fans shove photos of that play in front of him, hoping he’ll autograph it, what they get back is a polite: “No thanks.”
“I ain’t going to sign that,” Hunter said, affably but firmly. “A couple of people have tried. They said, 'Would you sign this?’ I said, 'No. That ain't even me. That’s my feet.’ They think it’s funny. It’s funny to them. It’s not funny to me. I was trying to win.”
And most of all, that’s what Hunter wants people to remember about that dramatic moment in postseason time. Yeah, Ortiz was the hero. But the man who toppled into the bullpen almost made an amazing play, one that might have changed the entire course of October events.
“Most people, the majority of people, people who know the game, they were like, 'Wow, that was a great effort,'" Hunter said. “A lot of guys don’t even go for that ball. They just [pull] up.
“And a lot of people don’t know I lost the ball. It was in the lights. The whole time, it was in the lights. And that’s why I kind of overran it. Well, I don’t know if I exactly overran it. Just, it was behind me, while it was in the lights. And I had to try and make an adjustment really quick with my body. I didn't pick it up until it was like five feet in front of me.”
So, when it came time to make an instantaneous decision, Hunter never thought twice. He risked those two months of pain and rehab because a World Series trip was on the line. It was the only choice, he said.
“I could have just [given] up,” he said, “because it was going over the fence regardless. But what the heck, man. I’m trying to win. I’m going to go all out.”
Hunter knows there was one other byproduct of that play, though. It turned Steve Horgan, the bullpen cop, into an official, autograph-signing, picture-posing New England celebrity. And that’s the one part of the Boston celebration Hunter says he has no problem with.
“That was awesome, man,” Hunter said of Horgan. “You know, he’s a fan. He’s just rooting for his team. And it so happens, you get a snapshot of him, with the excitement, with my feet right next to him. But he’s a good man. He’s always smiling in the bullpen. You know, Steve, I’d met him before. But I had a chance to talk with him after that incident and really get to know him. I thought he was a great guy.”
And now they’re bonded forever, by one wild and crazy October moment, frozen in time by a click of a camera. And that click stands as a reminder that, when postseason paths collide, one man’s jubilation can be another man’s painful struggle just to get out of bed in the morning.