In an All-Star Game full of the unexpected, Torii Hunter
was the first to flip the script. You can't escape that first inning moment. Barry Bonds
blasting a fastball toward right center. Hunter fading back in early twilight, crossing the warning track, reaching the wall and robbing the king of a midseason-classic dinger.
Hunter ran back toward the dugout smiling, braces gleaming, glove high. As he approached the infield, a grinning Bonds closed in, stealing back the moment. He hoisted the Twins centerfielder over his shoulder, as if he were roughhousing a little brother. Nice one, kid, just remember who's in charge. Hunter's body stiffened, refusing to be tossed around, even if it was just a joke. But his moment was gone, the crowd suddenly reveling in Bonds' strongman stunt.
By night's end, after the befuddled commissioner called the game a tie, the talk was of baseball's problems. But freeze-frame the catch and the smile, then give the moment back to No. 48. Now that his Rawlings model B491 bat has caught up to his Gold Glove, Hunter has become the American League's best centerfielder, and proven he belongs on the same stage with Bonds. In fact, in this season of gloom, Hunter and the Twins are the ones doing the heavy lifting.
|Torri Hunter is leading the Twins' postseason push.|
"Denny! Denny! Denny!"
It's mid-June, and Minnesota is in New York for a three-game interleague matchup with the Mets. Following their pregame infield practice, many of the Twins slowly make their way to the dugout.
"Denny! Denny! Denny!"
Maybe more than any other major league squad, Minnesota is devoid of recognizable stars. (The club's own advertising slogan is "Get to know 'em.") But it doesn't stop the throngs of kids from trying to snag an autograph, even if it's only backup infielder Denny Hocking's.
"Denny! Denny! Denny!"
The kids won't stop. Hocking screams back: "What?! I can't right now. I've gotta eat. I've gotta get dressed. I've gotta go to the bathroom."
Meanwhile, the 27-year-old Hunter stands on the dugout's top step. He is leading his small-market, nearly contracted team to a division title, and he signs close to 40 balls and sundry memorabilia. "I was a kid once,'' he says. "But I never saw a professional ballplayer until I became one."
What young Torii Hunter saw were the roaches and rats that crawled through the dark, Pine Bluff, Ark., nights in a house that was occasionally without electricity. He'd sleep on a towel because the springs in his bed poked through the mattress. His parents, mom Shirley, then an elementary school teacher, and dad Theotis, a railroad worker, did their best to raise the four boys on the city's rough East Side. When you ask Torii what his three brothers (Taru, Tishque and Tramar) are up to now, he makes the point that they all hold jobs and, more important, that none of them are in jail.
The Twins stumbled upon Hunter while chasing an Arkansas legend. His Pine Bluff High School teammate, Basil Shabazz, was perhaps the state's greatest prep athlete ever -- all-state in hoops, a USA Today All-America in football, the owner still of the state's 200-meter dash record. He got a $150,000 bonus from the St. Louis Cardinals though he played just one season of high school baseball. Shabazz made the Cardinals' 40-man roster in 1994, but weak hitting and an off-field legal problem prompted his release later that year. Still close to Hunter, Shabazz today works as a counselor of mentally retarded adults in Waco, Texas.
Scouts saw some of Shabazz's athleticism in Hunter. A quarterback and free safety in high school, football was Hunter's first love. "I liked to lay the hat on guys," he says. "That's why I run into walls, to get that feeling." But he also liked hitting baseballs. Local legend has it that, during his junior year, he belted a ball 550 feet, sending it over a light stanchion before it came to rest on a dirt pile. "He could do things not many could, even though they were probably better players at the time," says Mike Ruth, the Twins' Midwest scouting supervisor, and one of the first to spot Hunter. "At 18, there were kids who could field better, hit more. But you knew that at 20 he was going to catch a bunch of them -- and at 21, he was going to pass them."
So the Twins made Hunter, a raw athlete with a crude swing, the 20th overall pick in the 1993 draft. But having pulled himself out of the 'hood, Hunter soon found the minor leagues to be a different sort of challenge. For one thing, he'd never seen a slider before. He struck out just three times in high school, but when he fanned for a third time in a rookie game, Hunter became so frustrated that he threw his bat over the backstop. "He couldn't hit," says Larry Corrigan, another Twins scout. "But whenever he got hold of one, Mays and Aaron and Clemente ... that's what theirs sounded like."
But the Twins loved how every field played small with him in center. Sometimes too small. In a 1997 Double-A game in Trenton, N.J., Hunter ran through a wooden fence while making a catch. "A guy was on the other side, with a beer in his hand, chatting with a lady," he says. "He was like, 'Dude, where'd you come from?' I just said, 'From the game,' and kept walking, holding my glove up."
The Twins loved other things about Hunter, too. "You knew if he ever hit, he was going to be a star," says Corrigan. "Because of his charisma, his smile, his bounce and his humility."
On a blistering hot Midwest afternoon, Hunter is an early arrival in the Twins clubhouse. He doesn't say much, dressing quietly in front of his locker, where a tiny Spider-Man toy scaling a rock is perched on a shelf. He then heads to an adjacent players-only room. There, the crack of slammed domino tiles, pierced only by some heated trash-talk, mimics the sound of early BP down the hall. Seated to his right, Jacque Jones, Hunter's best friend and fellow outfielder, is singing "holla at a playa" in rising falsetto with each move. "Make it funky," he tells his partner, Mike Jackson, the 37-year-old reliever who claims to have a degree in "dominology." Jones and Jackson are getting the best of Hunter and reliever Tony Fiore. And Jackson is talking some serious noise: "Go ahead and play that. Because as soon as you play on your gut, you're gonna stand and salute."
"Who you trying to hurt?" says Hunter, playing a 10. "Tennessee toddy, all ass and no body."
"I'll lock this sucker up. I'm about to lock it up."
"Lock it up then," says Hunter. "I'm from the Show Me State, Missouri ... well, close to it. You don't even know what to play. I'll tell you what: 'Study long, study wrong.' You ever heard that?"
No need to study the crooked bill-capped, home run-raking, wall-crashing, bones-playing country charmer too long. He doesn't wear a protective cup. He doesn't know his family's phone number. When he wants to call home, he checks his cell for one name: Mama. He's just started wearing orthodontic braces to close the gap in his smile. Torii is such a likeable, unpretentious guy that you almost forget he's a superstar, the biggest thing in Minnesota right now. During one June homestand, Torii Hunter Jersey Night was followed closely by Torii Hunter Bat Day. What makes it all more surprising is that just two years ago, Hunter felt he had played his last game in a Twins uniform.
Throughout his tenure in the Minnesota farm system, the righthanded Hunter had been encouraged to hit to right. Shortly after he reached the bigs in 1997, Hunter quickly learned Tom Kelly's unspoken rule: You don't go to rightfield, you get the next day off. Playing in a building nicknamed the Homerdome, Hunter didn't get it and says trying to appease his manager is what led to his depleted power numbers: "Every time I'd swing, I'd look over at the dugout and think, 'Did you see that?'"
Having spent the entire 1999 season with the Twins, Hunter began the 2000 season with them. He scuffled through the first two months, hitting just .207, but by late May, he felt he was pulling out of his slump. Then one night he was told Kelly wanted to see him in his office. Expecting words of encouragement, Hunter's heart dropped when he saw Twins GM Terry Ryan. He knew what was next. The Twins were sending him down to their then-Triple-A affiliate in Salt Lake City. Saddened and stunned, Hunter packed up everything and took what he thought was one last look at the Minnesota clubhouse. Considering his differences with Kelly, Hunter was sure a trade was imminent.
According to Torii, the trouble with TK actually began following a win at Kansas City in 1999. On the field to shake hands, Kelly pulled Hunter aside, accused him of missing a hit-and-run sign. In front of the remaining fans, including Hunter's parents, Kelly told Torii to go to first base and take a lead, while then-third base coach Ron Gardenhire ran through the signs. Hunter followed Kelly's directives, but back in the clubhouse the two got into a heated argument. Hunter claims Kelly touched him. (Kelly could not be reached for comment.) "I wanted to hit him, but I knew I couldn't," Torii says. Instead, Hunter vowed never to say anything to Kelly again, to only speak when spoken to.
Before his demotion to Salt Lake, Hunter contemplated quitting the game, only to be talked out of it by his buddy Shabazz. In Utah, the feeling again returned, but a bevy of familiar faces helped him through it. The 2000 Salt Lake City lineup -- featuring current Twins Doug Mientkiewicz and A.J. Pierzynski -- was the best in the PCL. Immediately upon arriving in Salt Lake, Hunter started to have fun again. He hit .368 with 18 home runs and 61 RBIs in just 55 games before rejoining the Twins. But his relationship with Kelly was never the same.
He credits his work with then-Salt Lake hitting coach Bill Springman for helping him regain his swing. But what it really came down to was figuring things out for himself. In his quest to return to the bigs, Hunter adopted his dominoes strategy: study long, study wrong. If he was going to fail at this game, he was going to do it on his terms, with his dignity intact. And at the plate, that meant he was going to take his hacks. "I might look bad sometimes," says Hunter. "But I got two more swings. Now I keep it simple: see ball, hit ball."
With 24 homers and 72 RBIs through Aug.1, Hunter is now on track to dwarf 2001's breakout numbers (27 homers, 92 RBIs). The player who once tried to slap the ball to right has become one of Minnesota's constant sources of power -- as well as the Twins' leader. And his impact is not lost on his teammates. Jones, who's having an outstanding season himself, says he'd be lost without his friend in the outfield. Mientkiewicz, who has 20 doubles but just 6 HRs, says, "I cheer every time he hits a home run. For me to survive up here, we have to get power from another source. Mark Grace survived with Sammy Sosa. I call Torii the poor man's Sosa." Says Gardenhire, now the Twins' skipper: "As long as he keeps that smile on his face, he'll be fine."
|Torii shines through Kirby's shadow.|
Acknowledgment doesn't just come from the Twins. Opposing pitchers have expressed their high opinion of Hunter too -- by knocking him on his butt. On July 17, Hunter was drilled in the ribs by the Indians' Danys Baez
, not the first time that's happened when the Twins play their Central Division rivals. Hunter picked up the ball and fired it back at Baez, hitting him in the leg. But following the game, in vintage Hunter fashion, he apologized: "I just lost it. That's not me."
High above Hunter's turf in right-center, five giant photographs of the men who wore the Twins' retired numbers hang like giant baseball cards. One of them belongs to Kirby Puckett
, whom Hunter is most often compared to. Centerfielders both, team leaders both. But Hunter doesn't have to play in anybody's shadow -- not Bonds' or Puckett's.
Being Torii Hunter is what got him here in the first place.
This article appears in the August 19 issue of ESPN The Magazine.