Fire to win burning hotter than ever for Hunter
Tigers right fielder ecstatic to be back under bright lights of October
BOSTON -- There were times late into last season when Torii Hunter would just sit there -- dirty uniform on his back, tired body plopped on the leather recliner in front of his locker -- and zone out for a few minutes. He was doing all he could for a star-studded Angels team that was headed nowhere, his shot at a World Series title continuing to elude him, and frustration was spewing out.
"I'm only 28 years old," the 38-year-old Hunter likes to say, "but it's getting late."
These are better times for Hunter, as he winds down the 17th season of a Major League career that, in his mind, began at age 11. His new team, the Tigers, reached the American League Championship Series with back-to-back wins over the upstart A's. And now Hunter is only four wins away from reaching his first Fall Classic, eight away from an achievement he doesn't believe his decorated career would be complete without.
"We're brainwashed in the Minor Leagues to have championship seasons and to win the ultimate goal, and that's the World Series," Hunter said. "Ask any player that question, especially guys with 17 seasons in -- that's 28 years old -- and I'm telling you it's the ultimate goal for us to win a World Series, for me to win a World Series. If I can do that, I promise you it'll be complete."
Hunter was spoiled early in his career, in way that can almost make you take winning for granted. His Twins won four AL Central titles from 2002-06, then the Angels were back-to-back AL West champs his first two years in Anaheim.
But by the end of the 2012 season, Hunter had missed out on the playoffs three years in a row and was coming up on free agency. His priority, Hunter often said, was to stay with the Angels. But they didn't tender him the qualifying offer he would've accepted and told him they were scaling back payroll -- before signing Josh Hamilton to a $125 million contract -- which set Hunter off into free agency.
A couple of weeks later, Hunter secured a two-year, $26 million contract with a Tigers team he can now admit he began scouting by the middle of 2012. He saw an open spot in right field, salivated at the thought of hitting in front of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, thought back to how difficult it was to hit their pitching and took note at how they rolled to the World Series last autumn.
This was the kind of season he envisioned.
"I might not be a financial advisor," Hunter said, "I might not be a doctor, I might not be a lawyer, but I'm definitely a Major League Baseball player, and I know that I know what I'm talking about in baseball. I know what I'm looking for in baseball. When I looked at the Tigers, I looked at every other team and I felt like the Tigers had the best chance of winning. Because I know."
Every time you bring up Hunter's age, he'll give you a wry smile, talk about how he's "28" and tell you how good he feels.
"Don't fall on the hype," he says. "Everybody's genetically different."
He's no longer a Gold Glove center fielder, hardly anyone still calls him "Spider-Man" and his 25-homer seasons are a thing of the past. But Hunter has averaged 148 games over the last four years, has transitioned into an above-average defensive right fielder and has shortened his swing to fit the No. 2 spot he's thrived in these last two years, with a combined slash line of .308/.349/.459.
Tigers skipper Jim Leyland calls Hunter "one of the toughest players I've ever managed," and he's had many of them throughout his 22-year managerial career. All the intangibles people bring up about Hunter -- the affable personality, the natural leadership skills and the fiery demeanor that make him one of baseball's most beloved players -- are just a "bonus" in Leyland's mind.
"He cares," former Angels teammate and current Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli said. "He just wants to win."
And, frankly, he's tired of not doing it.
Hunter wants to play even after his current contract expires in 2014. He called 2013 "one of my favorite years," talked about "being part of something positive" in a city that "needs uplifting" and expressed his desire to keep going.
But Hunter is also conscious of the clock that keeps on ticking -- even though he's only "28."
"I miss this, man," Hunter said of meaningful games in October. "I missed out for the last three years. Consistently coming to the postseason before that, it was a lot of fun. It was all about winning. To be back, in the postseason, and getting a chance to win a World Series ring, that's key for me."