Ageless wonder Torii Hunter
When you are on a team with a Triple Crown winner, a pitcher that won the Cy Young and MVP awards in the same season, and a $214 million man who are all producing, it is easy to get lost in the shuffle. Yet Torii Hunter has found a way not only to shine but be a key voice in the leadership choir of the Tigers' success.
Hunter has aged gracefully, getting better over time. As he flirts with recording back-to-back .300 campaigns for the first time in his 17 major league seasons, the fine wine that is 38-year-old Torii Hunter isn't quite ready to pop the cork on his career. But he is ready to pop the corks on more champagne in Detroit.
His optimistic spirit does not accept that age requires you to get worse by default. He is resilient with the understanding that at any age you can learn and improve -- even when time is nipping at your hamstrings.
"From all my failures and all my experiences, I've gotten better mentally in the game and in life," says Hunter. His body seems to agree as he has already eclipsed 140 games played this season, with more to come in October.
Hunter's durability has been an example of how he leads in the clubhouse, how he strives to make the game a better game. He values accountability like someone doing your taxes by hand, line by line. All while making sure he produces in whatever role the coaching staff sees fit for that given day.
"I respect authority. I don't whine, I don't complain," Hunter explains. "I go out and do my job."
When you embrace multiple roles and positions as Hunter has done so well, you have to be prepared. "Always loose, always ready," he says.
He has earned the right to be a starter, but he knows that he may be called on in a variety of roles even when he is given a "day off" to rest his body. But if pinch hitting is his job that day, then he will embrace it. An example that sticks with the younger generation of players.
Hunter is an old-school thinker who can blend with the new-school crowd. "I'm 38 years old, you better follow my lead," he says with a smile. "Don't let me show you up."
No one can say Mike Trout, who was Hunter's teammate and pupil in Anaheim, has been shown up by Hunter. Hunter acted as Trout's tutor while respectfully making sure it was understood that Trout should do most of the listening until he has put in time, not just put up numbers.
Teammates aren't the only ones listening. The respect for Hunter across the game has been the result of his efforts in his lead-by-example approach, which benefits teammates and opponents alike. Hunter explains that a legacy is "not only about what I do on the field, but what I do in the clubhouse as a teammate. The relationships I build, whether it is in my clubhouse or the other team's clubhouse."
The outspoken Hunter has always been honest with the media, perhaps to a fault. He has been criticized in the past for his controversial comments on the thought of having an openly gay teammate and the difference between the African-American experience and the Latino experience in the game.
But his honesty and openness comes from a desire to push away the fear of talking about difficult topics. Agree or disagree with his stances, he has taken on a diverse swatch of (and sometimes divergent) opinions on baseball's hot-button topics and challenged people to deal with them.
In 2012, he left the Angels to address a serious family matter surrounding his son, Darius McClinton-Hunter, who had been arrested on sexual assault charges. (A grand jury declined to indict Hunter's son, and McClinton-Hunter has since filed a lawsuit against his accusers.) This direct experience in navigating off-field stress gave Hunter the bandwidth to conclude that Prince Fielder was facing his own off-the-field challenges while struggling on the field. Hunter empathized with Fielder's distractions when it became public that Fielder was in the midst of a divorce.
On stress, just like broken bats and slumps, Hunter is clear that you will "always have it" in your baseball life. "We are human but one thing about baseball is once we walk in this clubhouse, take off our clothes and put on this uniform, it's our safe haven." Hunter says. It is a place where you can "get away from all the negativity that is going on in our life," a place where you can "separate the two."
So the island we call a baseball locker room is more than just a place to get ready for a game; it is a place of refuge. A sanctuary of sorts that lets you clear your mind and your soul even if it lasts only while you are there. But to Torii Hunter it is family, and even his opponent is part of it. And he knows that everyone is similarly situated in this life. He has seen family through the players association as this union has set the tone with its "history of togetherness and the power of knowing what we can accomplish together." He references Curt Flood and Marvin Miller in citing an example of unity and the need to "inform young players what we went through."
Allyne Price of the MLBPA expressed that Hunter is "committed to making the game better for the next generation, the same way the previous generation made the game better for him."
In that family, inevitably, comes change. The time when you are moving from team to team, organization to organization, coach to coach or, as in Hunter's case, center field to right field. He was used to being in the dominant position. So when he became a right fielder to make room for the Mike Trouts and Peter Bourjos' of the world while in Anaheim, it was a change. He had to relent and give way knowing that he was trained with a mentality where the center fielder can "call off anybody." A position where "you run the field. I had to humble myself. Let pride go." He also noted that there is another key difference. "Most balls to right field are hit hard. You don't have a chance to get to them. You play the ball off the wall or on the ground. Kind of boring," Hunter says with a laugh.
Even with the changing of the center-field guard, Hunter offers value in ways that young players cannot provide, even those as gifted and productive as Mike Trout.
In expressing the path for young players and their ability to lead veteran players, Hunter clears the air. "[Young players] can't lead veteran players." They can't substitute for "the experience, the wisdom, the understanding" that time has given veteran players. Young players, Hunter adds, are "playing on pure talent."
He certainly has the trophy case to evoke the influence that comes with being a trusted adviser. Nine Gold Glove awards and a Silver Slugger award make for an impressive showing, but he also has won the Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award for contributing to his community and the Branch Rickey Award for community service excellence. Hunter, it appears, can teach you how to hit a cutoff man and how to make the world a better place in the same breath.
Hunter's opponents know about his leadership qualities. Said Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins: "You can always count on Torii to play the game with the joy of a kid, which I believe has kept Father Time at bay longer than most expected. His dedication to his craft has made him a valuable part of many winning teams and his ability to adapt has made him a valuable leader."
Indians manager Terry Francona knows all about Hunter's love for the game. "He has always bought an infectious enthusiasm to the game," Francona said. "Anywhere he plays in the outfield, you know that area is covered. He plays to win and seems to always enjoy doing it!"
Even with such kudos, Hunter is just passing on the gift. He cites Kirby Puckett as providing him with the wisdom that stuck with him years later. He recalls Puckett telling him that, "Every day you put on that uniform, you play it like it is your last day. Every time you go home, you can say you gave it your all. Before you know it, when it is over, you don't want to look back and say 'I wish, I wish, I wish.'"
When pressed about his legacy, Hunter declares that he just wants people to remember that "Torii will give it back."
No wishing, just doing.