Torii returns to Twins Territory with trepidation

Torii Hunter
REUTERS/Gregory Shamus
Temporarily, ex-Twin Torii Hunter will bring his Gold Glove defense — and his frequent smile — back to center field at the Metrodome, when his new team, the Los Angeles Angels, and the Twins face off Monday night in the season opener.

TEMPE, ARIZ. — Even now, after changing his cell phone number three times to avoid people hitting him up for a piece of his newfound wealth, Torii Hunter still keeps the Original Pancake House in Edina on his speed dial.

That’s where he ate breakfast most mornings as a Minnesota Twin, often with Jacque Jones, Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins, until Hunter was the only one left.

Now, the most popular Twin of recent years is gone, too.

Tuesday morning, in the expansive Los Angeles Angels clubhouse at the team’s spring training site at Tempe Diablo Stadium, Hunter talked with MinnPost, flashing that trademark smile as he recounted his daily order that the waitresses knew by heart: two waffles with whipped cream, a side of crispy bacon, and cranberry juice.

“I miss those ladies up there,” Hunter said. “That’s like my family. They made breakfast for me. Anybody who makes breakfast for you is family.”

The five-year, $90 million deal Hunter accepted from the Angels in November means he can afford all the extra bacon he wants, wherever he wants.

And he’ll be back in town very soon for a likely morning visit there.

Hunter both curious and nervous to see fans’ reactions
On Monday night at the Metrodome, Hunter will make his regular-season debut as an Angel facing the Twins in both teams’ season opener. The prospect of opening against the Twins, the team where he spent his entire major-league career, leaves him curious and nervous — curious about how the fans who cheered him for nine-plus years will react, and nervous that it might be ugly.

“I’m the enemy now, but in the back of my mind, I’m still human. I want that good reception,” said the seven-time Gold Glove winner. “I could say no and be hard or be tough about it, but it would hurt. I was one of those guys who kept his nose clean off the field, always tried to do the right thing and carried myself that way. We’ll see what happens.”

This year’s major league schedule was announced before Hunter signed. He’s glad the Angels are making their only Minneapolis appearance of the season so early. “That’s kind of good, that I can get it out if the way and not worry about it in May or June, and still have that in my heart that I’m going to Minnesota,” he said.

By all accounts, Hunter has made a seamless adjustment to a new clubhouse and new teammates.

He already knew players like Chone Figgins, Gary Matthews Jr. and Garret Anderson, and that helped. Manager Mike Scioscia is a chubbier version of Ron Gardenhire, minus the exploding pens and the booby-trapped office. And Hunter fits in with the Angels’ hard-nosed, aggressive style, which Scioscia brought over from the Dodgers organization. Hunter responded with a fine spring, hitting .360 with three homers and 10 RBI.

“We knew there wouldn’t be much of a transition on the playing side because of his talent,” Scioscia said. “We felt very confident he was going to fit in with all our players because he’s got such a great personality, but it’s been incredible. He’s fun to be around.

“When he walks in the clubhouse, even if he’s not talking, you know where Torii is. Guys rally around him. This spring, he’s been a mentor to a lot of the younger players, too, as well as trying to fit in with some of the veterans he’s played against for a while. He’s been terrific.”

Added Anderson: “He said everybody loves to have fun around here, and he didn’t really have that in Minnesota. We’re all business on the field, but in the clubhouse, we like to have a good time.”

Hunter still maintains close ties to several Twins
Still, Hunter feels ties to the organization that signed and nurtured him. He keeps in touch with Justin Morneau and Craig Monroe, plus coaches Scott Ullger and Jerry White.

He closely followed the camp competition to succeed him in center field. It upset him to learn that Denard Span, whom he mentored, had been optioned Monday to Class AAA Rochester. Span lost the job to Carlos Gomez, the speedy and undisciplined former Met acquired in the Johan Santana trade.

“He should have won that spot,” Hunter said of Span. “Span deserves it. He’s from the organization, never been in trouble, works hard. He can play. He can hit. I might be biased because I know him well, worked with him and talked to him. It’s tough that he’s not getting that chance.

“Carlos Gomez … is going to be impressive, I’ll tell you that right now. From what I’m hearing and reading, he might not be ready. But you’ve got to make that trade look good. That’s just my opinion. I’m not there no more. I can say what I want.”

That was the only criticism Hunter, 32, leveled at the Twins during our Tuesday interview. After watching the Twins sign Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Joe Nathan to multi-year deals, he said he understands why Twins management never seriously negotiated with him about a contract extension. The Twins offered three years at $45 million, but Hunter was seeking four or five years. In free agency, every finalist bidding for Hunter proposed five-year deals.

“I’m not upset about it, but I knew when I went begging to those guys that I wanted to stay, and they didn’t even listen, I knew that the writing was on the wall,” Hunter said.

“I was getting older, for them. They had younger guys doing their thing, and they had to figure a way to sign those guys. I understand that.

“They knew what they wanted to do. They had to. They kind of knew they were going to trade Johan. Morneau was the MVP of the league, and you’ve had to figure out how to sign him before he does it again. Cuddyer, he was due. He carries himself in the right way. If they sign me, who’s to say they can sign Morneau or Cuddyer?”

Hunter’s donation to hometown in keeping with his track record

Well known for his community and charity work as a Twin, Hunter last week pledged $500,000 toward the $9 million cost of a baseball complex at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, in his hometown. Hunter said the school, which he never attended (the Twins drafted him out of Pine Bluff High School in 1993), approached him for help. The complex will be named for Hunter, whose concern about the dwindling number of African-American players in baseball led him to establish the Torii Hunter Project, which creates and maintains baseball diamonds in the inner city.

Now, Hunter and the Angels have a busy few days coming.

Hunter, Anderson and Vladimir Guerrero were excused from Tuesday’s two-hour bus ride to Tucson and a game with the Diamondbacks so they could get a head start for Anaheim, where Hunter will make his Angel Stadium debut on Thursday in an exhibition game against the Dodgers. (Hunter planned to drive to Anaheim with his younger brother Tramar, about a five-hour trip.)

Home-and-home exhibitions with San Diego follow Friday and Saturday before the Angels fly to the Twin Cities for a Sunday workout, then the season opener.

At least one of those mornings, Hunter said he plans to stop by his old breakfast joint. He may even call ahead to get a table, just like he used to.

But his greatest fear about returning to the Metrodome has nothing to do with waffles with whipped cream.  He’s worried that, out of habit, he might do something stupid.

“I think about all that stuff,” he said. “Say you pop out or ground out, whatever, get off base, and have to go back to the dugout. I hope I don’t go back to the Twins’ side. That would be embarrassing, man. I never made a right. I always made a left, and turned around.”

Pat Borzi, a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the New York Times, writes about sports for MinnPost.com.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Parker Knox on 03/26/2008 - 11:46 am.

    Great story on Torii Hunter! I don’t think he has a thing to worry about in regard to his reception in Minnesota Monday night. Twins fans are down-to-earth Upper-Midwest people of class, just as their team reflects. I suspect Torii will get a standing ovation when he first comes to bat in the top of the first inning and/or when he heads to center field in the bottom of the first. I hope he does well in this series, but Twins fans can’t hold a grudge against him. Neither, however, do we cheer for the Angels. Go, Twins!

  2. Submitted by Pat Backen on 03/26/2008 - 11:51 am.

    I don’t think Torii has to worry about a poor reception.

    I bought tickets to both the Opener and Tuesday’s game, just to allow me and my son to watch him play and “thank” him for his time as a Twin.

    On top of being a great player, he gave of his time and money to tons of causes. He personally sponsored 20 kids to play Little League in a Northwest suburb and made an appearance on a Saturday afternoon to meet each player and take questions.

    He’ll be missed, but not forgotten!

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