ANAHEIM -- It was the end of the regular season. The Angels had just lost to the Mariners at Safeco Field, 12-0, in a meaningless game that did little but bring closure to a year in which they fell short of the lofty expectations they carried into 2012.
Sitting in front of his locker was Torii Hunter, with Sharpie in hand.
"My hand hurts," he said, showing off that trademark smile.
One by one, Angels players walked over to Hunter, handing him jerseys, baseballs and pictures for him to sign just in case this was the final time he'd be their teammate. They wanted him back, Hunter wanted to return, but the chances of that happening, even then, were very much up in the air.
"Hopefully that's not it," Jered Weaver volunteered from across the hall. "Hopefully they bring him back."
But the longer the offseason went on, the slimmer those chances seemed. And on Wednesday morning, a little more than four weeks after that Oct. 3 season finale, Hunter departed for good by agreeing to terms on a two-year, $26 million contract with the American League-champion Tigers, sources confirmed to MLB.com.
"It's something that we've certainly been prepared for, so it didn't take us by surprise," Dipoto said shortly thereafter. "Torii, he's a good person, he's a very good player and we wish him well. But that's where he chooses to be."
The Angels greatly valued Hunter, not just for his success at the later stages of his career but for the unrivaled leadership, character and overall presence he provided during his five-year tenure in Southern California.
All of that had a price, though. And for an Angels team that needs to allocate its funds toward pitching, and has plenty of outfield depth even without Hunter, it was hard to justify spending significant money on a 37-year-old coming off a career year.
Since mid-September, the Angels didn't offer Hunter more than a one-year, $5 million contract, a source said. On Nov. 2, they also didn't extend him the $13.3 million qualifying offer to retain a Draft pick -- because they knew Hunter would accept it, and because they couldn't afford for him to do so.
At that point, Hunter admitted that the chances of a return were "pretty low."
"But you know, like I said, all is not lost and you never know," Hunter said then. "[Owner] Arte [Moreno] knows what he's doing, he's a businessman, and when you think something's not going to happen with him, it happens. I still think there's a shot, but at the same time, there's going to be a lot of teams with shots."
And practically half the league took a shot, before Hunter agreed to go to Detroit, where he seems like a perfect fit as an everyday right fielder and No. 2 hitter.
The Angels will probably continue to look for someone willing to take some of the $42 million owed to Vernon Wells over the next two seasons. But right now he looks like the fourth outfielder, with Mike Trout moving to left field, Mark Trumbo sliding over to right and Peter Bourjos, who hardly played in 2012 despite a solid rookie season the year before, being the everyday center fielder.
Even without the irreplaceable Hunter, it's a talented outfield. Talented enough for the Angels to shift all their focus to a rotation that only has two returning members from 2012 -- Weaver and C.J. Wilson -- and a bullpen that has blown a combined 47 saves the last two years.
"The decision was not simply that we didn't see the ability to fit Torii Hunter's salary to a payroll structure," Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto said the night of Nov. 2. "It was Torii Hunter's 2013 salary number in conjunction with where he was going to play on the field. Clearly we made a choice, at this moment in time, to situate ourselves to allow Mark Trumbo and Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos the ability to get out there and play on a regular basis."
Hunter batted a career-high .313 in 2012, adding 16 homers, driving in 92 runs, playing sparkling defense in right field, fitting in perfectly in the No. 2 spot and basically carrying the Angels' offense in September. But given his 258 strikeouts the last two seasons, and his .389 batting average on balls in play in 2012, the Angels were wary that he could repeat that success.
Still, speaking to local radio station KLAA 830 AM near the end of the regular season, Moreno said of Hunter: "I tell you what, if we don't figure out a way to re-sign him, we're going to get hung, aren't we?"
Hunter was that important, to the fan base, to the clubhouse, to the lineup.
He arrived from the Twins via a five-year, $90 million contract in November 2007 and proved to be worth every penny, compiling a .286 batting average with 105 homers, two Gold Gloves, two trips to the All-Star Game and a Silver Slugger. But Hunter also held great value off the field, as a clubhouse leader and a mentor for young players.
He moved from center field, a position that won him nine straight Gold Gloves, in the middle of the 2010 season to accommodate Bourjos. And he was a guiding light for Trout.
"He's impacted my whole career so far," Trout said. "Coming up, he kind of took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. He was always there for me, on and off the field. Any questions I would have, he would answer. He was the right guy to go to."
Trout will have to go elsewhere now.