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Hunter, the ideal teammate, eyeing his first title

DETROIT -- Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter is 39 and still going strong.

He has an impressive resume for his 16 full big league seasons, after starting his career with a couple late-season cups of coffee. He's been a five-time All-Star, won two Silver Slugger awards, and is headed to the postseason for the eighth time.

But there's something missing: a championship ring.

He has never been on a team that made that step into the World Series, much less a team that won it.

Maybe this year.

The Tigers have already locked up at least a Wild Card spot, and they are sitting atop the American League Central standings, holding a one-game lead on the Royals with two games remaining in the regular season.

If the Tigers make good on their bid for a championship this time -- something they haven't done since 1984 -- Hunter will enjoy the moment as much as anyone. It won't, however, satisfy his cravings.

"Sure you want to win one, but if you win one you want another and another," he said. "It's that competitive edge an athlete gets. You can't ever be satisfied. You have that edge every day on every pitch in every at-bat."

"When my kids were little I could barely let them score enough to win a video game," said Hunter. "I was not going to make it easy for them. I couldn't roll over and let them win. Failing is what makes you stronger. It gives you that extra drive."

Not that Hunter really knows.

He hasn't failed at much in his career. He was a key part of the core back in the early 2000s that helped the Twins put together a series of postseason appearances. Then, Hunter was a part of his most disappointing postseason appearance with the Angels when they were eliminated in the AL Division Series by Boston in 2008, and he is now headed to the postseason for the second year in a row with the Tigers.

It is not a coincidence that Hunter has been able to enjoy so many October experiences.

It is the way he lives.

He is one of those guys who makes a team he is on better just by being there.

Oh, he can do the job on the field, too. Mainly a No. 2 hitter with the Tigers this season, he has a .288 average with 17 home runs and 82 RBIs.

But it's off the field where Hunter is at a different level than most. It's a holdover from his days in Minnesota, where a home-grown group of players developed a particularly strong bond in the spring of 2002 when there was talk that the Twins, at the request of owner Carl Pohlad, would be contracted, along with Montreal.

"We had guys who had come up together, and that spring we aren't sure where any of us might be the next spring," said Hunter. "We knew it might be the last year we played together. We decided we were going to go out with a bang, and make it hard to sell the team.

"We weren't supposed to do that much, but we won 94 games, beat Oakland in the Division series, but got beat by the Angles in the LCS. Next thing you know we were contenders."

Contenders? That ran off three consecutive AL Central titles for the Twins, and eventually four in five years and six over a nine-year stretch.

"We all learned from that," said Hunter. "We learned about playing for each other. We learned that what we as individuals did didn't matter. It's what we as a team did.

"Look around, there are a lot of us still playing. Myself, A.J. [Pierzynski], David [Ortiz], Cuddy [Michael Cuddyer], Kyle Loshe and Hawk [LaTroy Hawkins]. We knew how to fight. We knew how to battle."

And they had Hunter to show them the way.

"He was that guy that brought us all together," said Cuddyer. "It wasn't something he tried to do. It's just something that happened. When you think about being a leader, you don't have what it takes to be a leader. Torii wasn't thinking about anything but winning."

Twelve years later, the thought process remains the same.

"It's why you play the game," said Hunter. "It's why you keep score.

"This isn't a one-man game. It's a team game, and everything you do has to be with the team in mind. It's about what you can do to help the team be better, not what you can do to make yourself better."

It is why Hawkins smiles and calls Hunter, his best friend, lucky.

"He keeps getting on teams when they are ready to win," said Hawkins.

And he's done it again in Detroit.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for
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