Twins center fielder Torii Hunter, left, and minor-leaguer Denard Span worked out together in January in Dallas. Span spent a week with Hunter at his home in the Dallas suburbs to help prepare for this season. As Kirby Puckett did for him when he was breaking in with the Twins, Hunter has taken Span, Hunters likely successor, under his wing. Hunter says its one way to repay Puckett for the priceless mentoring he received.
Jerry Holt, Star Tribune
TWINS SPRING TRAINING Up next: 12:15 p.m. today vs. L.A. Dodgers Fort Myers 1500-AM
Twins: Hunter a center mentor
- Article by: Joe Christensen
- Star Tribune
- March 5, 2007 - 11:03 PM
FORT MYERS, FLA. - Torii Hunter still has Kirby Puckett's number programmed into his cell phone, and the sadness came back recently, when he scrolled past Puckett's name while trying to call another friend.
One year ago today, the Twins were heavy with grief, as Puckett died from a brain aneurysm at age 45.
For Hunter, Puckett was more than a former teammate. He was a mentor and a friend.
Puckett famously took Hunter under his wing at spring training in 1994. They often ate dinner together, and Puckett grabbed every check, saying, "You just treat the next guy the same way."
Hunter never forgot.
Scroll down a few names from Puckett's on the Hunter cell phone, and there's the entry for Denard Span.
In recent Twins lineage, center field has been a special place belonging to Kirby Puckett and then Hunter. Now, Span is considered next in line.
When they first met in 2002, Hunter told Span to call if he ever needed anything. One day this winter, the phone finally rang. Span asked if he could come visit Hunter, so they could work out together and talk about what it takes to make the next step.
"I was nervous," Span said. "I didn't want to ask him. My mom said, 'Go ahead, boy. That's the best thing I've heard you say in five years.' "
Hunter welcomed Span with open arms. They spent a week together at Hunter's 19,900-square-foot estate in the Dallas suburbs.
Mornings were spent working out with Hunter's personal trainer, Jason Maresh. Then, they'd spend the rest of the time talking, knowing how much they had in common.
Both were first-round draft picks. In fact, both were taken with the 20th overall pick.
The Twins signed Hunter for $450,000 in 1993. Nine years later, they signed Span for $1.7 million.
Hunter, 31, had a troubled upbringing in Pine Bluff, Ark., where his father battled drug addictions and the family dealt with the constant threat of gang violence.
Span, 23, said he didn't have it as rough as Hunter growing up in Tampa, Fla. But Span's mother did transfer him from Hillsborough High to Tampa Catholic, in part, because they felt it was a safer environment.
So Hunter can relate to Span in some of the same ways he could to Puckett, who was raised in the Chicago projects.
"Kirby was one of those guys you could talk to anytime," Hunter said. "He could share stories. Financial problems -- he's been through them, so he'll tell you what to do. Family problems -- he's been through them, so he'll tell you what to do."
During his visit, Span watched as Hunter opened his home for two Star Tribune journalists, relating the story of his harrowing childhood.
"A lot of people who come to see the games don't get a chance to see what kind of guy he is off the field," Span said. "He's a world-class person. I haven't met too many people like him."
Goal within sight
It's not as if Span's career needed a complete overhaul. But as he heads into his fifth minor league season, scouts say they think he still has a ways to go.
Span hit .285 with two home runs and 24 stolen bases last season for Class AA New Britain. He had shown more promise in 2005, when he started the year batting .339 for Class A Fort Myers.
"Put it this way," Span said, "I've had some success, but I know I can do a whole lot better than what I have been."
A lefthanded hitter, Span made a significant change to his batting grip last season. He had been holding the bat with his hands spread apart -- à la Ty Cobb -- but at the Twins' urging, he moved his hands together in the conventional grip.
Early in spring training, Span hit a towering home run over the center field batter's eye, saying the new grip is just starting to feel natural.
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said the team knew Span was capable of doing more than flicking base hits over the shortstop's head.
"He's getting there," Gardenhire said. "He's handled himself very well as a person and a player. You can tell he's grown into a young man here that has a pretty good idea how to get to this level."
Hunter keeps reminding Span of his own five-year struggle to reach the big leagues. Even after Hunter made it, in 1998, he got sent back to the minors before coming back to stay.
"I try to tell him to use his God-given ability," Hunter said. "Don't read the papers or listen to coaches who say you've got big shoes to fill. I used to hear that all the time with Kirby.
"I actually thought about that for a second, until I was like, forget that, those shoes are too big to fill. I've got to get my own little thing started."
Span likely will open the season at Class AAA Rochester. If Hunter leaves as a free agent this fall, as most expect, will Span be ready to take his place? Hunter told Span not to even worry about it.
"I wouldn't want him to leave, man," Span said. "You know how much I would want to play next to him, even if it was just to pinch-run or to play left field or something. ... I don't care; I'd play second base."
Joe Christensen email@example.com
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