The parade of high-profile athletes leaving Minnesota continued Thursday, when All-Star center fielder Torii Hunter agreed to a five-year, $90 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels.
In the end, the Twins' best offer -- three years for $45 million -- wasn't even close. The team bid goodbye to the seven-time Gold Glove Award winner who had been a beloved personality during its run of four division titles in five seasons.
"He has been a true professional," Twins General Manager Bill Smith said. "He's been a great player on the field. He's been great in the community. He's a tremendous person off the field. I'm appreciative of everything he contributed to this organization."
The news came less than four months after the Timberwolves dealt Kevin Garnett to Boston and within the same three-year span that saw the Vikings unload Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper.
Unlike the other stars, Hunter, 32, left via free agency, but the move might be a precursor to the Twins trading Johan Santana, who can become a free agent after next season.
As much as the Twins hate losing top players, the Hunter negotiations -- or lack thereof -- showed the team's continued unwillingness to bend to baseball's market pressures.
"I didn't want to leave the Twins," Hunter said. "I just felt like they were ready to leave me. They thought I was too old to do a five-year deal."
Hunter rejected the Twins' three-year, $45 million offer in August. Three months passed without a new proposal.
Hunter entertained five-year offers from the Chicago White Sox, Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals before the Angels swooped in, unexpectedly.
The Angels made the announcement after midnight Wednesday. Smith said he had to call Hunter on Thursday morning to confirm the news.
"I was surprised that it was the Angels," Smith said. "I think they kind of came out of left field. I think everyone was surprised at how quickly it happened."
A year ago, on Nov. 22, 2006, the Angels signed free-agent center fielder Gary Matthews Jr. to a five-year, $50 million deal. Stacked with other outfielders, the Angels still were desperate to bolster their offense, so they made a late push for Hunter.
"They were nowhere in sight prior to Tuesday," said Hunter's agent, Larry Reynolds. "We were thinking we were going to make a decision next week. But this call from the Angels changed all that because they basically said this offer's on the table for one day."
Hunter made his decision without having one last conversation with the Twins. But Reynolds had called Smith late last week, hinting that other teams were getting serious.
Twins never faltered
Perhaps the Twins were waiting for a counter proposal from Hunter, but they never changed their original offer.
"They dealt with us in a first-class manner, and I think we did the same with them," Smith said. "He got a tremendous offer. I'll just leave it at that.
"I didn't comment during the negotiations, and I don't think it's beneficial for anybody to start commenting on it now."
Because Hunter is a Type-A free agent, the Twins will draw the highest level of compensation for losing him, getting the Angels' 2008 first-round draft pick (No. 27 overall) and a compensation pick between the first and second rounds.
The White Sox and Royals each made offers for about $75 million. Hunter said he was close to a deal with the White Sox at one point, and the Rangers agreed to an option for a sixth year that would have brought their package to $84 million.
Then, the Angels entered with an offer that included a no-trade clause.
"They told me, 'Look, we want you to be our center fielder,'" Hunter said. "And they gave me an amount of money that my momma and all my friends would have slapped me if I turned it down."
Hunter said he's had great respect for how the Angels play the game ever since they defeated the Twins in the 2002 American League Championship Series.
"The money is one part because it blew everybody out of the water," he said. "The other part is they want to win. They play the game the way I like it. The outfield is perfect. The grass is perfect. You can't beat that. The sun is perfect. Every night it's 70 degrees."
Hunter lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Prosper, Texas, so the Rangers offered a chance to play near home. In that respect, the Angels were the next best choice, since they play in the Rangers' division and make three trips to Texas each year.
But Minnesota had become a home for Hunter, too. The Twins made him a first-round draft pick in 1993 and signed him out of high school in Pine Bluff, Ark. He went on to bat .271 with 192 home runs and 711 RBI over parts of 11 seasons with the Twins.
"There's no hard feelings or anything like that," Hunter said. "I wish I could have stayed with the team that I grew up with since I was 17. I wanted to stay with them from Day 1, no matter what people are trying to say that I wanted to leave regardless."
As fate would have it, the Angels open 2008 at the Metrodome on March 31, meaning the next time the Twins play a real game, Hunter will be there -- wearing the opposing uniform.
For the Twins, at least they won't be facing Hunter 18 times a year, as they would have if he would have signed with the White Sox or Royals.
"He joked about that," Smith said. "He said it's probably better for everybody that he's out of the division. And I guess that's probably a good thing for all of us."
Joe Christensen firstname.lastname@example.org