Twins center fielder Torii Hunter heard ovations Sunday when he took the field for pregame warmups and during each of his four at-bats, but he really felt the love in the top of the ninth inning of the Twins' 7-1 victory over the White Sox.
Hunter took his place on the field before the inning began, but, as planned, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire sent Jason Tyner out as a substitute.
Right fielder Michael Cuddyer walked over to Hunter just before Tyner ran out.
"Don't cry," Cuddyer said to him.
That's where the script ends. Because there was no way for Hunter to plan for the rush of emotion he felt as the soon-to-be free agent jogged off the field in what may have been his final home game as a Twin.
Most of the announced crowd of 29,382 cheered and called his name. Hunter looked up at some of them and noticed tears. Teammates were tearing up. Hunter became teary-eyed, too.
"I wish you guys could have felt what I felt," Hunter said.
"I thought I was the toughest guy, coming from the hood. Here I am, crying."
Gardenhire told Hunter what he intended to do before the game. Hunter, who made his major league debut with the Twins in 1997, rejected a three-year, $45 million contract offer from the club several weeks ago, and requested that talks be delayed until the end of the season. Indications are that the club is willing to add a fourth year to the deal, but Hunter, 32, might want a five-year contract.
The Twins can negotiate exclusively with Hunter until 15 days after the World Series, then other clubs can bid on him. Hunter would be one of the top free agents on the market, meaning that the Twins could get outbid.
If so, Gardenhire wanted to make sure that Hunter felt the love one more time.
"I told Torii, "That doesn't mean you're out of here,'" Gardenhire said. " 'You want to say, "Thank you." You've had a great year. They want to cheer for you and I think you should tip your hat to them also.'
"We're going to do everything we can. As much as these fans love this young man, I think that is going to go a long ways as to the decision to keep him here. He should be a Minnesota Twin the rest of his life. I don't open the checkbook, but that's my opinion."
Hunter didn't sleep well Saturday night. He gave in and got up at 5 a.m. "and just started packing," he said.
He took a good look around downtown as he drove to the Metrodome. The Twins begin a six-game road trip tonight in Detroit and will finish the season on the road at Boston, after which he'll head straight to his home in the Dallas suburb of Prosper. He'll have a clubhouse attendant pack his things and ship them to his home.
So this was it. Possibly one last time to look around the city and the stadium where he went from a great glove, no-hit prospect to a two-time All-Star and six-time Gold Glove winner.
"I was walking through the hallways of the Metrodome, talking to people I see coming to the Dome," he said. "Everybody was teary-eyed, telling me good luck and God bless, like I was retiring.
"I'm sitting here with a smile, but I'm really burning up inside."