DETROIT -- Torii Hunter's charitable spirit was evident long before he became a Tiger. He won the Branch Rickey Award four years ago from Major League Baseball in recognition of his Project Education Initiative to provide college scholarships for needy students, and he made his presence felt in his previous stops in Minneapolis and Southern California.
When Hunter signed with the Tigers a year ago, he talked about wanting to make an impact in the community. Now he's going out of his way -- literally -- to help a group of local kids enjoy the holiday season.
When the Tigers hold their annual Holiday Giving Party next month, welcoming area foster kids and families in need for dinner at the Tiger Club, they'll have a special guest. Hunter will make the trip back to Detroit to be on hand. He's not only putting his presence behind it, he's providing support, too, for the dinner as well as the shopping spree for the kids afterwards.
The annual event regularly relies on contributions from Tigers front office members, many of whom have a small fraction of a player's salary. Forty more volunteered time last year to package 60,513 pounds of food to be distributed to local agencies supporting children and families in need. For Hunter to add his support, financially and beyond, says a lot about his work off the field.
It's part of the support Hunter aimed to provide when he signed.
"I've seen the face of Detroit change," Hunter said at his introductory news conference. "It's changed, but we've still got some work to do, and that's what I want to do. I want to give back. I want to help. I want to get involved."
Hunter also teamed with the Detroit Tigers Foundation, an affiliate of Ilitch Charities, during the season to launch a program called Hunter's Homies, which awarded game tickets from Hunter to local charitable organizations for children who otherwise wouldn't have the chance to catch a game at Comerica Park. Hunter met with the kids prior to the games and invited them to batting practice from behind home plate.
It's a cause that hits home for Hunter, who grew up surrounded by poverty in Pine Bluff, Ark.
"Even in the Minors, I tried to go out and talk to the kids wherever I was," Hunter told The Associated Press a few years ago. "When they look at a Major League Baseball player, that's a major thing in their lives. When they meet a ballplayer who takes time out to shake a hand or sign an autograph or teach them how to play the outfield, it just gives them that boost to go on with their lives. That's a big thing to a kid.
"I just love the looks on kids' faces when I go. They get so excited, so happy, and you can see how much it means to them. A lot of these kids don't have dads. There's a lot of dads missing in this world, so some of them look up to other men. If you're in a position to be an example to them, that's what you've got to be."
Hunter was far from the only Tiger reaching out to the community this year. American League Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer provided tickets to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Detroit as a reward for kids and a thank you for mentors who volunteer their time to serve as a role model.
Fellow Tigers pitcher Anibal Sanchez worked with the Detroit Tigers Foundation to launch a program called Sanchez's Smiles, which invited patients from the craniofacial and cleft lip clinch at Children's Hospital of Michigan to watch a game and enjoy dinner from Sanchez's luxury suite at Comerica Park.
AL MVP Award winner Miguel Cabrera was recognized this season as the Tigers' nominee for Major League Baseball's Roberto Clemente Award for excellence on and off the field, in part for Cabrera's community work. He established his personal foundation with his wife two years ago to help renovate youth baseball fields in Detroit, Miami and his native Venezuela. Cabrera's annual Keeping Kids in the Game fundraiser brought in over $280,000 to support children's health and youth baseball programs through the Children's Hospital of Michigan Foundation, the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and the Detroit Tigers Foundation, as well as his own charity.
Justin Verlander, meanwhile, was one of three recipients of the inaugural Bob Feller Act of Valor Awards in recognition of his work in support of veterans. His Wins for Warriors program launched this summer with a commitment of $1 million towards mental health support programs for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families in Detroit as well as Verlander's home area of Richmond and Norfolk, Va.
The Tigers as an organization received league-wide recognition at this month's Major League Baseball industry meetings with the Commissioner's Award for Philanthropic Excellence, honoring the team's anti-bullying campaign in conjunction with schools throughout Michigan.
"This award is an acknowledgement of the Tigers' steadfast commitment as a social institution," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said in accepting the award.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.