Torii's legacy goes beyond his baseball talent
Retiring after 19 seasons, veteran outfielder was invaluable presence in clubhouse
Torii Hunter's retirement announcement on Monday arrived on the eve of the World Series -- his one dream left unfulfilled in a wondrous career spanning 19 seasons.
Rising from Arkansas streets that have claimed so many close to him, Hunter became an inspiration to teammates and a beloved figure to fans. He met them on equal footing, not as a star. He was a legitimate five-tool player whose passion for the game and appreciation of everything it gave him never faltered.
He was the life of every Twins, Angels and Tigers team he graced. He was the toughest guy in every room yet a softie with kids, his generous heart always shining as brightly as his smile. He shared everything he had and everything he knew.
"Torii taught me so much -- about the game, about life, about how to handle yourself as a professional," Angels superstar Mike Trout said recently. "I was lucky to have him as a teammate and have a locker next to him, so I could ask him all those questions and learn so much from him."
Breaking in as a role player in 2011, Trout was placed right next to Hunter in the home clubhouse for a reason. Torii's wisdom surely would rub off on the impressionable kid with all those gifts.
"Mike's my guy," Hunter said during his final Angel Stadium visit with the Twins. "I knew he was going to great, all-time great. He's got it all; there are no limits to what he can do in this game."
Before Trout there was Peter Bourjos, another tremendous athlete. When Bourjos joined the Angels in August 2010, Hunter faced one of his toughest professional decisions head on. He gave up his identity, in effect, when he moved from center field to right to accommodate the younger, faster Bourjos.
"I always thought of myself as a center fielder, not as a baseball player," Hunter confided to the guy who worked with him for four years on his popular MLB.com blog. "The best athletes are center fielders. It meant everything to me. It wasn't easy, but I knew it was time."
Not only did Hunter step aside. He took aside Bourjos immediately, arm around his shoulder, preparing him.
"It was a little uncomfortable for me at first," Bourjos said, "but Torii wanted me to feel like I belonged and did everything he could to help me from the moment I got there. I'll never forget that. He put the team ahead of himself, because that's the way he is."
This was nothing new to Hunter. He had been conveying knowledge to center fielders around the game for years, welcoming them to his fraternity and making himself available for whatever needs might arise. His protégés fill the MLB landscape.
This all went back to Hunter's earliest days as a teen with the Twins. Arriving as a first-round Draft pick in 1993, 20th overall, out of Pine Bluff (Ark.) High School, Torii was a sponge, soaking up everything from future Hall of Famers Kirby Puckett, Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor.
"Those guys showed me how a veteran was supposed to act," Hunter said. "I watched how they treated people and respected the game. I knew that's how I wanted to be someday."
He became a regular at 23 in 1999, claiming his first of nine consecutive Rawlings Gold Gloves two years later. In 2002, Hunter finished sixth in the American League Most Valuable Player Award balloting and reached the postseason for the first time. He hit .300 as his Twins turned away the A's in the AL Division Series before falling in five games to the Angels - and his future manager Mike Scioscia - in the AL Championship Series.
Minnesota lost first-round series in 2003, '04 and '06 despite .429, .353 and .273 batting averages from their center fielder and leader.
Hunter would appear in six more postseason series, three each with the Angels and Tigers. Powerful teams denied, he forged on, determined to celebrate that elusive World Series championship.
"When you get to a certain age," he said, "that ring is what drives you, motivates you to keep pushing."
Hunter, whose winter workouts at home in Texas are legendary, came home to Minnesota in 2015 sensing it would be his final season. He lifted and drove a young team far beyond expectations, a great teammate to the end.
"I've had good times everywhere I've been," Hunter said, "but there's something about home. This is where it all started for me."
Turning 40 on July 18, Hunter accepted that his five tools weren't as sharp as they'd been, that a toll had been taken. Despite batting .240, 37 points below his career average, Hunter homered 21 times and drove in 81 runs. It marked the 11th time he'd reached each of those plateaus. His 355 career homers are 10th among active players.
But his trademark was defense, scaling walls to steal home runs as "Spider Man," playing center field like a shortstop. Only Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr. and Andruw Jones won more Gold Gloves Awards as a center fielder than Hunter's nine.
Hunter is not sure what the future holds, but he'll keep busy watching his football-playing sons and staying in touch with the game that carried this driven kid from a rough place to unimagined heights.