For media, Hunter the gift that kept giving
MINNEAPOLIS -- It was an impressive list of current and former Twins players, coaches and front-office members in attendance Thursday at Torii Hunter's retirement news conference.
The amount of people who turned out for Hunter's farewell gathering spoke volumes about the 40-year-old's reach and impact in the Twins' organization and the community. But that impact extended far beyond the clubhouse, as those in that room Thursday would attest.
"It's a special person who can own and command a room like this. There aren't a lot of those guys," said Twins president Dave St. Peter. "He'll be one of the most impactful players we've had, one of the greatest competitors we've had and somebody who ultimately helped create a lot of new fans across Twins Territory."
Much was said Thursday of the 2002 Twins team that set up Minnesota for a decade of competitive baseball. Corey Koskie was the third baseman on that team, and he was close with Hunter, by then an established center fielder.
Though Koskie left the Twins after the 2004 season, he and Hunter have remained close over the years. Koskie considered it an honor to have been invited to Hunter's news conference.
"There are probably three or four guys that I've stayed in touch with," Koskie said of his former teammates. "There's only a few people who at the core are just good people. And there's only a few guys who, No. 1, return my calls or text messages and were always there. Torii's one of them."
From a media standpoint, few players could fill up a reporter's notebook quite like Hunter. LaVelle E. Neal III has covered the Twins for the Star Tribune since 1998, meaning he chronicled the early stages -- and the final season -- of Hunter's big league career. Neal recalls the impression that Hunter left, even at a young age before he had truly cemented himself as a Major League presence.
"I had covered the Kansas City Royals before that, and the Twins were totally different," Neal said. "In Spring Training, they'd always have their chairs turned out toward the middle of the clubhouse so they could just mess with each other. … Torii was in the middle of it all and was a big part of that."
Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com had the unique opportunity to cover Hunter in multiple uniforms. Bollinger has covered the Twins for MLB.com since 2011. Before that, he was an associate reporter with the Los Angeles Angels in 2008 and got to know Hunter during his time in L.A. as a backup reporter for MLB.com.
"I remember talking to Lyle Spencer, our [Angels] reporter at the time; he called me and told me what to expect," Bollinger said. "He told me, 'You're going to be so happy because we have the best guy in baseball in Torii Hunter to talk to media.' I was fresh out of college, my first job. For him to be as awesome as he was to a young reporter like me in 2008 and kind of take me under his wing … he was good to me."
Charley Walters, longtime columnist of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, echoed the sentiment of other reporters, saying Hunter ranked at the top when it came to a great quote and an engaging personality.
"He could probably be president of the United States if people got to listen to him for a while," Walters said. "Or at least host the Academy Awards."
In 2006, the Twins established the Mike Augustin Award, also known as the "Media Good Guy" Award. It's given each year to a player who is accountable and available to the media and has a good relationship with those who cover the team.
Since the award's inception, Hunter has been the recipient as many times as he's had the chance. He won it in back-to-back years in 2006-07 before leaving for Los Angeles. In 2015, Hunter's 19th and final season in the Majors, he took home that award once again.
Sean Harlin had a firsthand look at Hunter's interaction with the media during the early stages of Hunter's career. Harlin worked in the media relations department from 1997-2006 before transitioning to a role as the team's video director, where he still works today.
"He's such a great person. He's almost a better person off the field than he is on the field. He treats everybody the same," Harlin said of Hunter. "Everything new that we did, he was all aboard on it. That helped me out to try to make me better. Torii does that. He mentors all these players to be better. He's mentored me to be better, and I'm 10 years older than he is. He's a special person. He really is a special person."
Many current members of Minnesota's front office were around back when Hunter was coming up through the Minor League ranks. Assistant general manager Rob Antony was one of them, and he still has a strong recollection of the first time he spent extended time with Hunter.
Antony, who at the time was the Twins' director of baseball operations, was heading to Venezuela with former general manager Bill Smith in the late 1990s. Hunter was also set to fly to Venezuela to play winter ball, so the three of them arranged to take the same flight from Florida.
Unfortunately, their flight was canceled due to a hurricane, so Antony, Smith and Hunter were put up in a hotel that had lost power due to the storm. Even then, the young Hunter's charisma helped lighten the situation.
Years later, Antony recalled Hunter passing the lessons he learned from Kirby Puckett on to younger outfielders like Denard Span and, more recently, Aaron Hicks and Byron Buxton.
"Through the course of the years, you kind of have to take Torii in his entirety, because he did so many things along the way and he had different points in his career," Antony said. "To have him be able to come back this year and to work with Hicks and Buxton, that's invaluable. I don't think you're going to see the benefits of that for a number of years until down the road when those guys are established guys in the big leagues. They're going to look back and realize the impact Torii had on them. It's kind of the gift that keeps on giving."