PROSPER, TEXAS — Torii Hunter sat on a chair in the batter’s box at Prosper High School last week, setting baseballs on a hitting tee for Jayson Nix.
It was overcast and in the 50s, but spring training was in the air as Hunter and a couple of other players took their first swings of the new year. Hunter, rejoining the Twins after a seven-year hiatus, was talking as much as he was hitting.
“You’ve got to load a little bit,” Hunter said to Nix, who played in the World Series with the Kansas City Royals last season. “Bring the bat back, then boom!”
Nix was soon lining balls to right field, prompting Hunter to yell, “Oh my!”
Hunter, a man who could not hit a curveball when he arrived in the majors in 1997, is now breaking down swings and offering hitting tips. That’s the result of playing 18 seasons and learning from teammates who have won batting titles and Most Valuable Player awards. Hunter will turn 40 in July, but by all appearances he is aging gracefully.
“Paul Molitor said something to me when I was younger,” Hunter said. “He said, ‘I’ve got 20 years in the big leagues and I’m still learning.’ To me, if I have two years [left] in the big leagues, that means I’ve got a long way to go. So I’m that type of guy who always has to ask a lot of questions. And I’m still learning, asking questions to different players on different teams.”
Hunter is intent on being much more than a veteran mentor for the Twins. He batted .286 with 17 home runs and 83 RBI last season with Detroit.
Defense at this point is a bigger question for the nine-time Gold Glove outfielder. In sabermetric talk, his ultimate zone rating of minus-18.3 ranked last (16th) among all right fielders who qualified for league leaders. Hunter maintains that numbers don’t tell the story and that he has plenty of life left.
He stocks his refrigerator with organic food, and a switch in his offseason training routine three years ago has increased his flexibility and durability.
“Everybody knows, and I know, I’m not Torii Hunter in center field anymore,” he said. “I’m 40. When I was between 20 and 35, I was pretty good. I’m pretty sure the teams I was on knew I could play defense. I don’t know where all the metric stuff came from.
“But I’m 40. I’m the oldest [position player] on the field in baseball. I’m not like these young guys who are 22, 27, 30. But I can still play solid outfield.”
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Derek Hill, the Detroit Tigers’ first-round draft pick last June, joined the likes of Matt Kemp and Denard Span as players who have worked out with Hunter in the offseason. Hill met Hunter during a pre-draft workout in Detroit last year and flew to Texas from his home in California, staying several days at Hunter’s 19,900-square-foot mansion in this north Dallas suburb.
The son of Los Angeles Dodgers scout Orsino Hill, the 19-year-old outfielder with the quick bat was socking balls off the wall at Prosper High, and learning a lot about baseball and life from Hunter.
“It hits home because I hear the same stuff from my dad every single day,” Derek Hill said, “but when you hear it from a different mouth, it completely changes everything.”
Span knows what Hill is talking about. A Twins first-round in 2002, he stayed with Hunter for a few days after the 2006 season. Coming from Class AA New Britain, he wanted to see how a major leaguer prepares in the offseason and got the entire Torii Hunter experience.
Span’s luggage was beat up at the time, so he borrowed his girlfriend’s, which was red and green with flowers. Hunter, who had a limo pick Span up at the airport, laughed at him when he arrived at his home.
“He rode me about it for the whole time I was there,” said Span, who led the National League in hits last season with the Washington Nationals. “He showed my luggage to his kids. But, when I was getting ready to leave, he wrote me a check and said, ‘Man, get you some new luggage.’ ”
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The Torii Hunter experience requires an open mind and thick skin.
And perhaps a referee, a bell and headgear.
Hunter spent his previous time with the Twins with his chair facing out from his clubhouse stall, looking for someone share a laugh with or to needle. He’s promising more of the same in his return to Minnesota.
“There’s going to be a tornado that will hit that clubhouse,” said Eddie Guardado, the Twins’ new bullpen coach, and Hunter’s close friend and former teammate.
Hunter has a history of speaking his mind, and backing it up as needed.
In 2005, he took a swing at Justin Morneau when Hunter thought Morneau wasn’t being a good teammate.
In 2012, he twice had to be restrained from going after the Los Angeles Angels’ Albert Pujols when Pujols criticized him during a team meeting for a confrontation with pitcher C.J. Wilson. Pujols was unaware Wilson and Hunter had patched things up.
“That’s something I don’t like to do,” Hunter said, “but when you get challenged you can’t do that. What happened with those guys, I didn’t want to do that, but it came up and it happened. I was disrespected, and when you get disrespected things happen.
“But that happens with my brothers. I love my brothers — don’t touch any of them — but we do argue and we do fight. To this day, as grown men. And I love Morneau and I love Albert and they love me. It’s not about a power struggle or if I’m the leader of the clubhouse. I try to respect everybody. I hear people say, ‘Torii will do this and Torii will do that.’ I did it twice in 19 years.”
Hunter’s candidness has carried over into politics as well. In a radio ad supporting Arkansas governor-elect Asa Hutchinson in October, Hunter revealed an anti-gay marriage stance, saying: “Asa is committed to the principles we hold dear, like a strong faith in God, equal justice for all, and keeping marriage between one man and one woman.” Hunter berated a reporter when he was asked about it during his introductory news conference in November at Target Field, and he declined to elaborate on the subject when asked last week.
Families have disagreements, and Hunter views a clubhouse as one big family where conflicts are unavoidable. Guardado, who has been in Fort Myers as a special instructor in spring training for the past three years, has noticed a big difference in the Twins clubhouse compared to his playing days.
“Nothing against the guys because they are young, but nobody wants to step over any boundaries because they are young,” Guardado said. “With Torii in the clubhouse still playing and myself on the other side with the coaches, we’re going to teach the kids what it is all about every day. Win or lose, we’re going to come to the yard and have fun and keep it loose. What two better guys to learn from, right?”
Little will be off limits, Hunter said.
“When I strike out, I want to hear someone say, ‘Dang, T, you can’t hit water if you fell out of a boat,’ ” Hunter said. “I want to hear something funny so I can get over it quicker. I don’t want to drown in my sorrows. Eddie will eat you up but keep it fun. At the same time, it’s about preparation and having the will to go out there and fight.”
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Hunter has an office on the west wing of his mansion that looks out to a neighborhood that is also home to Pro Football Hall of Famers Randy White and Deion Sanders and former Twins teammate LaTroy Hawkins. He sat there behind a desk piled with documents in late October as he debated his return to the Twins.
He spoke with General Manager Terry Ryan one day for an hour, catching up on old times and talking about the direction the Twins were headed. Baltimore, Seattle, Kansas City and Texas were among the teams who wanted him, too.
“The Royals were huge,” Hunter said.
But Hunter told some people privately several years ago that he wanted to end his career with the Twins. After talking with Ryan, he pondered his decision through the Thanksgiving holiday and settled on a homecoming.
“It kept coming back to return to Minnesota and end my career there either this year or next year,” Hunter said.
Ryan downplayed how much Hunter’s potential as a mentor factored in the Twins’ decision.
“We’re looking for productivity on the diamond first, and the other things with his personality, his background and experience will take care of other things that come with his package,” Ryan said. “But if he produces, all that falls in place. He will be able to lead not only with his personality but by example. If he struggles on the diamond, that’s another story. But he’s a pretty good man for these young kids to follow.”
A leader on playoff teams with the Twins, Angels and Tigers, Hunter might find his biggest challenge remaining positive on a team that few expect to contend for a postseason berth.
He left the Twins after 2007 for a chance at a World Series with the Angels.
He left the Angels after 2012 for a chance at a World Series with the Tigers.
The Twins have lost 92-plus games four straight seasons and, despite adding a couple of noteworthy free agents and having top prospects nearly ready, might have to fight to avoid last place again in the improved AL Central Division.
While sitting at his kitchen table with a bowl of chopped apples in front of him, Hunter pointed out that the Twins went 6-5 against the Tigers in August and September last season. They won one game 20-6 and another 12-4. After speaking with Ryan about the future, Hunter feels it’s reasonable to embrace the underdog role.
“I knew about Byron Buxton,” Hunter said. “I knew about Aaron Hicks. Trevor Plouffe, Danny Santana — who I really love. Brian Dozier, he’s a gamer. Joe Mauer, of course. I raised that kid.
“I looked at the outfield and saw Hicks in center, hopefully, and then Jordan Schafer, I like the way he plays the game. Oswaldo Arcia, powerful. Then Kennys Vargas, who I thought was a mini David Ortiz.
“All I’m saying is, don’t count us out. … I think they are on the verge to do great things and prove people wrong.”