Torii Hunter one of the good guys
Outfielder's humor, friendliness make him adored in every clubhouse, not just his own
If Torii Hunter is not the friendliest, best-liked and most quotable player in the major leagues, he's certainly in the starting lineup and likely batting no lower than cleanup.
"I think that's about as safe a statement as you can make,'' Angels outfielder Vernon Wells replied when asked if Hunter is the game's friendliest player. "He's one of those people who is legitimately kind to everyone, no matter who it is. No matter if it's a random person working at the stadium or the best player in the game, he's the same person. He always has time to talk to people and get to know them on a different level. It's impressive to watch.
"He could run for mayor in Orange County and do anything he wanted to. The same in Minnesota -- everywhere he goes. He's loved everywhere. You give him enough time to get out and greet people and get them to know his personality, he could run for any position anywhere.''
If former first baseman Sean Casey is known as "The Mayor" for his outgoing personality and the ease with which he makes friends everywhere, what does that make Hunter?
"The President,'' Torii said with his familiar laugh. "Chone Figgins called me 'Obama.'''
Of course, Hunter might not get Danys Baez's vote -- Hunter fired a baseball at him after being hit with a Baez pitch in 2002. Then again, maybe he would.
"I don't think there is an enemy of his,'' former Twins teammate Michael Cuddyer said. "Even Danys Baez, who threw the baseball at him -- they're friends. Well, I don't know they're friends but they're cordial. The point is, I don't think he has an enemy.''
Teammates or opponents, legends or marginal players, veterans or rookies -- it doesn't matter. Hunter reaches out to everyone. And vice versa. When Ken Griffey Jr. was driving from Seattle to Florida after he retired, he called Torii in Kansas City to talk things over. Hunter will even scout a young player by checking his media guide bio to find an interesting subject to ask him about.
"If a young guy just makes it to the big leagues, Torii will be one of the first people to introduce himself and wish him luck and encourage people,'' said Wells, who became friends with Hunter in the minors. "That's the biggest thing -- he loves to encourage people around him. ... He gets upset as anyone in this game when he is failing, but if he sees anyone taking it harder than he is, he'll be the first to go over to them and just try to lift his spirits.''
"He's one of the easiest guys I've ever been around to talk to,'' rookie first baseman Mark Trumbo said. "No matter if he's at the top of his game or struggling, he's always open. You just need to talk to him to get a new perspective on things.''
For crying out loud, Hunter is so well-liked even Barry Bonds gave him a hug (after Torii's famous home run-robbing catch in the 2002 All-Star Game).
"I'm like the Shaolin monk,'' Hunter said, "the counselor in the clubhouse.''
There are other players as friendly and accessible as Hunter -- Mike Cameron, Curtis Granderson, Jeff Francoeur, Johnny Damon, Raul Ibanez and Jim Thome immediately spring to mind -- but few who can also match his infectious humor and quoteability. The Angels' clubhouse is like a late night talkshow set with Torii as the host. There should be a band, an audience and stupid umpire tricks. No cue cards would be necessary though; Hunter can provide an ample monologue off the top of his head.
Asked a couple years ago what superpower he would most like, the strength of 100 men, the ability to fly or the ability to turn invisible, Hunter replied, "The strength of 100 men. If I was invisible, I'd be hiding myself and sneaking around, and that's kind of shady. And if I was flying, I wouldn't get no exercise. I would just be up flying around. I'd be a fat flier. ... If you have the strength of 100 men, you know you're going to use it.'' During the same interview, he said that if he could invite anyone from history to dinner, it would be Martin Luther King Jr., Michael Jordan and Al Capone. (You have to admit, it would be an interesting dinner.)
Hunter is the go-to guy for reporters after a game. No matter if his team has won or lost, no matter how big the game was, his locker is a must-listen stop because he will reveal his feelings in full, descriptive and entertaining detail. For instance, after a crippling and embarrassing botched play in the 2006 division series against Oakland, he said, "You just sit there and think, 'Man, I feel less than a man right now.'''
After the Twins lost Game 2 of the 2002 division series in Oakland, Hunter told reporters: "We're not coming back here. We're celebrating Saturday night in Minnesota. [Pause.] You have to talk a little trash, you know, just to keep things interesting.''
He's even better when his team wins. After a big game two years ago, Hunter said, "Sometimes I get so pumped up I get a headache. I get woozy. I get dizzy. I like that feeling, I don't know why. I wish you guys could be in my body and feel that adrenaline. It's NICE! Damn.''
And asked by reporters last month how the All-Star break would affect the Angels' momentum, he replied, "I don't know, man. I'm Negrodamus, not Nostradamus."
Hunter says he came by this personality from two sources: his grandmother, Edna Cobbs, and his mother, Shirley (who still teaches grade school in Pine Bluff, Ark.). "My grandmother was the type of woman who always smiled and said treat people like you want to be treated and life is so much easier. My mom is the same way.''
Players also influenced Hunter, particularly Kirby Puckett. "He was like a big brother to me,'' said Hunter, who came up in the Twins' organization during Puckett's final seasons. "I remember watching the way people gravitated toward him, the way he'd walk in and smile. Even if he had a bad day the day before -- it was like he had amnesia. The way he talked to the security guard, the woman selling T-shirts, the janitor and then the vice president.''"Torii is one of those guys who will give you what you need out there,'' Griffey said. "He's the heir of Kirby Puckett.''
Like Puckett, Hunter grew up in rough, sometimes violent circumstances. His father was a drug addict and the family occasionally had to go to neighbors asking for food. "That's why I always smile and have fun,'' he said. "Nothing in baseball can bring me down to the level where I was growing up in Pine Bluff, crying and broke. This is fun for me. Whenever you see me slumping, nah, I don't get upset, I'm all right.''
"It's because he's been through so much, just life in general growing up,'' Figgins said. "When bad times are bad, well, it's not as bad as it could be. He takes that in perspective.''
Asked if anything upsets him in baseball, Hunter replied that apart from losing, "When I see guys who take it for granted, who get to the majors and are just happy to be here, not really putting in the work. When you get a blessing like this to play in the league and you don't take the time to put in the work, it irritates me a little. It hurts me to see people destroy their dream.''
In essence then, Hunter is a player who realizes it is a blessing to play in the major leagues and wants to share that joy with as many people as possible. So perhaps he would be a good president. If anyone is capable of bringing Republicans and Democrats together, it would be the Shaolin monk of the major leagues who probably could make a dinner with Al Capone work.
Hey, Torii made Barry Bonds smile, didn't he?
"He always finds a way to be your friend,'' Bobby Abreu said. "Everyone loves him. Not only our players but the whole league. The other players have good times with him. They have chit-chat with him, they laugh. He's just one of those kind, light personalities.''
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Follow Jim Caple on Twitter: @jimcaple