Torii Hunter’s introduction to big-league baseball came in 1994, when he reported to Twins’ spring training as a 19-year-old first-round draft pick and found himself in a locker between two future Hall of Famers.
Seven years later, Hunter would become an All-Star and one of the faces of a resurrected franchise. Between that first morning in Fort Myers and his career breakthrough in 2001, Hunter listened and slowly learned.
Dave Winfield, whose locker was to Hunter’s left during the first spring training, taught him how to treat a young teammate. Kirby Puckett, who occupied the corner locker, taught Hunter how to hit a curveball.
In the ensuing years, Rod Carew would take him to the batting cages and throw him hundreds of sliders, and Paul Molitor would teach him how to read a pitcher’s “tells” and discern what pitch was coming.
Hunter progressed from a talented youngster who couldn’t identify the spin of offspeed pitches to a slugger who crushed them.
“Man, it was amazing because it was like I was their little brother,” Hunter said this week. “They were all trying to give me all this information at once. And Dave Winfield told me all about his personal life, and how he made it. They didn’t have to do that.”
In 1997, Hunter almost quit baseball. He was playing at Class AA New Britain.
“We broke from spring training and I didn’t have any money,” he said. “My family was broke. I was a first-rounder and got a nice bonus, but I had helped a lot of people out, and had put the rest of the money away.
“I just didn’t have any funds. We had a homestand to start the season for five or six days, then were going on the road. So Armann Brown and I slept in a car. We didn’t want to have to pay that first month’s rent.”
The rental car cost $9.99 a day. “We got one with a stick shift, because it was cheaper,” Hunter said. “But that meant that every other night, you had to sleep on the stick shift.”
He finished the season with a .231 batting average. The Twins called him up for a day, for a game in Baltimore, to boost his spirits.
Hunter would become the embodiment of the old scouting line, “You always wait on talent.” As a minor leaguer, Hunter didn’t hit more than 10 home runs in a season until 2000, when he hit 18 in the thin air at Class AAA Salt Lake City.
He didn’t hit at least 20 home runs in a season until he became a big-league regular in 2001 and hit 27.
He would hit 20 or more home runs in 11 major league seasons.
Like Puckett before him, Hunter would also become a Gold Glove center fielder and the smiling face of the franchise.
I covered the Twins as a beat writer or feature writer from 1993 through 2004, and Hunter was the most welcoming star athlete I’ve ever covered.
“Even before high school, sports was a way for me to get away from all of the negative stuff that was in my life,” he said. “The field was my safe haven. I could be me, and I could cheer my teammates even if I was struggling.
“When I was with the Angels, an important person told me, ‘You do good work.’ And I thought he was talking about the way I was playing, but he said, ‘That’s not what I’m talking about. Your work is what you do in that clubhouse.’ ”
Now a business owner and entrepreneur in the Dallas area, Hunter said he takes the same approach with his employees. He remains a special assistant to Twins’ baseball operations.
His favorite moment on the field? He got his first big-league hit against the Orioles in 1998.
“Cal Ripken wound up with the ball and threw it into the dugout for me,” Hunter said. “Then when he got his 3,000th hit, it went to me in center field. I pretended to put it in my pocket, and he was like, ‘No, no, no.’
“I might be a Cal Ripken fan boy.”