Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Young Angels have veteran role models
By Mark Saxon
TEMPE, Ariz. -- When Torii Hunter was trying to break into the major leagues 15 years ago, he had a defense mechanism if older teammates felt like giving him a hard time.
"They didn't mess with me too much. They thought I was crazy," Hunter said.
In fact, Hunter came up in a pretty cushy spot. The Minnesota Twins were led in those days by Paul Molitor, Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield, down-to-earth veterans in the twilight of Hall of Fame careers. It wasn't a clubhouse rent by a generation gap.
"You knew who the leaders in the clubhouse were, because they didn't say anything," Hunter said. "They didn't have to. You knew already. If you knew there was a situation they could help you with, you'd go to the wise men."
Ten years later, Hunter is one of three wise men on the Los Angeles Angels being counted on to mentor the team's young position players. One of the savvy veterans, Hideki Matsui, is an unlikely leader for two reasons: He's new, and no one else on the Angels speaks Japanese. Matsui speaks English, but not fluently.
That leaves Hunter, 34, and Bobby Abreu, 36, to be the primary on-field coaches, just as they were a year ago. After spring training last year, Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher asked Kendry Morales and Erick Aybar to spend as much time as possible around Abreu. He asked Howie Kendrick to spend as much time next to Hunter as possible. The two have adjoining lockers.
"I told those guys, 'Just watch them, sit and talk to them,'" Hatcher said. "Those guys have been able to handle the mental part of the game throughout their careers and battle it out. When you've got experienced guys like them, you have to use them. That's what makes us a team."
Hunter and Abreu have distinct lessons to teach. Hunter plays every game with the passion of a rookie trying to hold a spot. He focuses as much of his energy on his defense as his offense, often risking bodily injury (and his batting average) to rob an opposing hitter of extra bases. He also is uniquely approachable in the clubhouse.
Hitting has typically been a bigger challenge for Hunter than playing center field. In his rookie year, he struck out 125 times, more than anyone on the Angels did last season. So, he can relate to a young hitter's frustration. He helped talk Kendrick through a downward spiral that sent him to the minor leagues in June. The two continued to talk in the offseason about topics from baseball to family to finances.
"I've been there, done that. Had the highs and the lows, you name it," Hunter said.
Abreu's influence was primarily in the batter's box. When he came to the Angels, their offensive style was personified by Vladimir Guerrero: Swing early, swing often. Abreu is among the most disciplined hitters in the game. He took 68 percent of the pitches he saw last year, making him the second-most-patient hitter in baseball behind the New York Mets' Luis Castillo.
Abreu has walked at least 100 times in eight of his 13 seasons. The Angels' on-base percentage went from .330 in 2008 to .350 last season, a dramatic increase many people attribute to Abreu's influence.
"Everyone says our team is so aggressive, but we've been trying to work with these guys for years," Hatcher said. "Sometimes, it helps to see it from one of your peers."
Hunter's leadership qualities are easier to see from an outsider's perspective, because he has a more outgoing personality. But the Angels' younger players say Abreu isn't an entirely silent role model.
"He talks to you at different times. He doesn't need anybody to see him," Kendrick said. "Torii talks to the whole team, everyone in the locker room. Those guys have done it. You've seen their success. Why wouldn't we want to do that, too?"
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.