Jim Souhan: Hunter smiled, and so did we

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 24, 2007 - 10:08 PM

Torii Hunter plays baseball like it's a privilege, but being able to watch him play might be a bigger one.

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The glory days: Torii Hunter responded to fans as they cheered while watching the Royals beat the Tigers on the Jumbotron to give the Twins the division title on the last day of the 2006 season.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Torii Hunter's departure creates more than a void in the Twins lineup -- it creates a void in Minnesota sports.

In the past decade we've heard Latrell Sprewell complaining that a three-year, $21 million contract wasn't enough to help him feed his family. We went through the Love Boat scandal. We watched Sam Cassell dog his way out of Minnesota, and Randy Moss make even a team desperate for star power and talent eager to dump him.

We've watched Kevin Garnett sulk while playing under the terms of a record-setting contract, watched Kyle Lohse take a baseball bat to his manager's door, watched A.J. Pierzynski talk his way out of town. Through it all -- and since he first signed with the Twins back in 1994 -- Hunter made himself our model athlete by bringing to life all of the sporting clichés about persistence, perseverance and passion.

I met Hunter on his first day of Twins spring training, in 1994, when he was 18. He was overjoyed to find his locker between Kirby Puckett's and Dave Winfield's. Like most youngsters getting their first taste of big-league life, Hunter smiled all day and called himself lucky.

Unlike too many high-profile athletes, he never lost the smile or the sense that he was more fortunate than most.

Let's not forget -- baseball was a struggle for Hunter. He was more renowned as a football player in high school, and he struggled at the plate in pro ball, once asking Ron Gardenhire to identify that pitch "that looks like it has a dot on it."That," Gardenhire said, "is called a slider."

Hunter bounced between Class AAA and the majors for a few years, and he was known for a live bat but undisciplined approach in his early years.

Even when struggling at the plate, though, Hunter became one of the best fielders in franchise history and built his reputation on his willingness to run into fences to make a catch.

In one minor league game, he ran completely through a fence. In one pivotal game in 2003, he saved a victory by diving face-first onto the old, sandpaper-quality Metrodome turf and singeing his eyebrows.

Hunter also changed the tenor and direction of the 2004 AL Central Division race by flattening White Sox catcher Jamie Burke at the plate. Even when Hunter threw a punch at a teammate -- missing Justin Morneau in 2005 and hitting Nick Punto -- he did so because he thought that's what his manager wanted.

After taking the blow, Punto told a coach: "Wow! I just got hit by Torii Hunter!"

Like his mentor, Puckett, Hunter played through injuries that sidelined teammates. His work ethic enabled him to become one of the best all-around center fielders in the game. Last year, he might even have been the best.

What do we ask of our best athletes? To play hard. To play hurt. To recognize how lucky they are to be wealthy, to take care of their families and invest wisely. To be a good teammate. To work on their craft. To show a little joy. To care about winning.

Hunter did all of that.

The Twins drafted him in 1993. He gave them 14 good years, becoming the best player on the Twins teams that ended the losing and the most personable player on the Miracle Twins of 2006.

The Twins were right to let him leave, and Hunter was right to go. Everybody wants the best deal they can get, and Hunter found a grass field in a beautiful, sunny ballpark, making big money for a team that could win it all.

Hunter is going to love Los Angeles, and Los Angeles is going to love Hunter, and back here in flyover country, the ballpark will be a duller place.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. jsouhan@startribune.com

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