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Thursday, January 20, 2005
Hunter defines excitement

By Phil Rogers
Special to ESPN.com

Over the last three seasons, the Chicago White Sox have hit 166 more home runs than the Minnesota Twins. Yet they've outscored them by only 143 runs. That's because the Twins make the most of the hits they get.

Even more revealing about the relative efficiency of these two teams is that over the last three years the White Sox have outscored their opponents by 168 runs; the Twins have outscored their opponents by 164 runs. Yet the Twins have finished a combined 26½ games ahead of Chicago in the standings, including a nine-game difference last season.

What's going on here?

One team plays the game the right way; the other has room for improvement.

A lot of little differences add up to a great big one when comparing these teams. And one of those things is that the Twins just know what they need to do and aren't shy about doing it. That's why we're calling Torii Hunter, who is hardly as quick as Anaheim's Chone Figgins or White Sox off-season addition Scott Podsednik, the most exciting baserunner in the major leagues.

Hunter doesn't steal a ton of bases -- 21 last season and 50 over the last three years. But scouts say he is one of the last runners an opposing team would want on first base in the late innings of a one-run game.

"The thing about Hunter is he has speed and he just knows how to run the bases so well,'' said a coach on an American League team. "He will go into second base hard when the double-play is in effect, he cuts corners rounding second as well as anyone, which allows him to get from first to third on a lot more singles than he should and he is willing to flatten any fielder who gets in the way. He's not a dirty player. He's a very smart one who will do just about anything to win.''

Witness the events of last July 26 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago.

Torii Hunter
Torii Hunter has a natural flair for running the bases.

In the eighth inning of a game Minnesota was winning 4-1, Hunter drew a leadoff walk from Cliff Politte. He then stole second, moved to third on a wild pitch and added an exclamation point onto the run he scored on a routine fly by Henry Blanco. He veered inside the baseline to flatten catcher Jamie Burke, who was left exposed by a strong throw from Timo Perez that pulled him up the line.

Many major-leaguers would have tiptoed around the catcher, and some of those would have been out on a good swipe tag. Hunter wasn't taking a chance, which made him a target for abuse from fans seated next to the on-deck circle in the top of the ninth inning.

"It wasn't grief,'' said Hunter, who fired back at the White Sox fans. "It was life-threatening. Somebody said they were going to take my life after the game. Why wait? Just do it now.''

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire defended Hunter afterward.

"Torii Hunter's one of the nicest kids you'd ever meet,'' Gardenhire said. "He was just trying to score a run. This kid's too nice of a kid to think about hurting anybody.''

Hunter said he anticipated a strong throw from Perez and felt he might have to jar the ball from Burke. "I had to do what I had to do to touch home plate,'' Hunter said. "I wasn't trying to hurt him.''

The thing about (Torii) Hunter is he has speed and he just knows how to run the bases so well. ... He's a very smart (player) who will do just about anything to win.
An American League coach

No one appreciated the play more than White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who would love to see his players adopt a more reckless attitude.

"If it happened on my side, I'd be high-fiving my player,'' he said.

Hunter's play proved to be a turning point in the AL Central race. The White Sox had closed within 1½ games before the July 26 game but went flat after Burke got steamrolled, going 31-36 the rest of the way.

Hunter had reminded the White Sox of the means to Minnesota's division dominance. This is a team, and a player, with an unquenchable thirst.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.