The current face of the franchise may have played his last game in a Twins uniform. Torii Hunter is now a free agent, having turned down a reported 45 million dollar contract offer that would have kept him in Minnesota for another three years. The popular Gold Glove center fielder is reportedly seeking a 5-year, 70 million dollar deal, making it unlikely that the cost-conscious Twins will be able to retain the services of their longest-tenured player. Hunter, who was acquired in the 1993 draft, hit .287/.334/.505 this season with 28 home runs and a career-high 107 RBI.
David talked to Hunter about his free agent status, getting a good jump, and who he would put on his all-time team.
David Laurila: You established career highs in several offensive categories this year. Do think this was your best season?
Torii Hunter: It’s a year where I’ve played most of the games, and when you play every day, you are who you are. If you can go out there and play the whole season, and not get injured, your numbers are almost always going to be the same. Your average fluctuates, but the other numbers are going to be there if you can get on that field and prove to people that you can play. This is the first time I’ve been healthy to play 160 games–usually I’ve been around 140 or 150–and I’m wise enough, and have enough experience under my belt, that I know that I can play this game.
DL: Outside of money, what are the determining factors as to where you play next season?
TH: The money is going to come no matter what, so it’s all about me winning. I want to win, so I’m just going to sit back and see what happens in the offseason. That’s when I’ll get a chance to see what teams are doing, things like making trades and picking up different guys. If I feel like I’m comfortable, and have a pretty good chance of winning, that’s the team I’m going for.
DL: Your plan is to be patient and see what happens.
TH: Very. I’m going to be very patient and not jump the gun. I’ll sit back and watch what teams are doing, even the Minnesota Twins.
DL: When Curt Schilling was making his decision to sign with the Red Sox, one of the things he examined was park factors. Will that be a consideration for you?
TH: Oh, yeah. My game is defense. Defense is everything to me. Hitting comes and goes, but defense should be every day. At the plate you have hot streaks and cold streaks, but I’m always hot on defense. If something is not right with the outfield–if the angles, and things like that, are something I disagree with–why would I go there? So, along with waiting to see what teams are doing, I’m also going to look at what the stadium situation is like. But one thing about Boston is that David Ortiz is here. I know a lot of guys on the team, and it’s a great group of guys. They hang out, they crack jokes, and that’s something I’m looking for too.
DL: Which ballpark do you find to be the most challenging to play in, defensively?
TH: (laughs) I’ll plead the fifth on that one.
DL: You won your first Gold Glove in 2001. Where are you now, compared to that time?
TH: Well, I’m a little older, you know, but my body still feels the same. I think I’m better in the outfield; I’m smarter. I dive when I have to dive. I know the hitters a lot better than I did my first year. I didn’t know the hitters: their tendencies, like whether guys liked to take the ball to right field all the time, or if they liked to pull. So I’m better; I know the hitters better.
DL: Is positioning a case of studying spray charts and knowing tendencies?
TH: Yeah, it’s about charts. When guys first come up, and you’ve never faced them before, you have to go by the charts. But I usually go by how guys are swinging, because every day is a different day. A guy might feel like pulling one day, and another guy might feel like going to the opposite field, even though he’s a pull hitter. And you have to watch what your pitchers are doing. If he’s pitching someone away, and forcing him to go that way, that’s where I have to play him. If he’s pitching him in, then I have to play that way. So there are a lot of things to factor in when you’re playing defense; it’s not just going out and getting a ball. It’s also about how hard is a pitcher throwing, where is he locating his pitches, is he missing, is he throwing a lot of off-speed stuff that guys are going to pull? I’m factoring in all of those things.
DL: Are you reading all of that from the outfield, or are you also talking to the catcher between innings?
TH: No, actually, I’m kind of like the second catcher. From center field, I can see it all. I can see what a guy is trying to do, if he’s trying to pull the ball or go the other way. I can see the location and what (the pitcher) is throwing in different counts. If he’s hanging his slider, or hanging his change-up, I know a guy’s probably going to pull. Where I’m at, I can see everything.
DL: What are the keys to getting a good jump in center field?
TH: The key is in knowing your positioning. If you know your positioning, you’re going to get a great jump. Instincts play a big part of that. It’s hearing the crack of the bat, and if a ball is hit hard, you hear a “Pow!” If he’s jammed, you hear a “crack.” It’s the sound of the ball off the bat, and it’s who’s hitting the ball. If it’s a big power hitter, you’ll know when a ball is really crushed. If it’s a smaller guy, you know the ball might not be hit quite as far.
DL: Do you wait until the hitter contacts the ball, or are you moving earlier?
TH: I move right when the bat is coming through the zone. It’s like a flash; everything is happening like a snap of the finger. But you can also flash and think about so many things while the ball is in the air. You can think of so many things while he’s swinging. You see a pitch coming inside and the guy turning on the ball, so your instincts tell you: “Go right! Go Right!” Your mind is telling you to go right before the ball is even hit. You know where he’s going to hit the ball, so you’re taking a step before you’re even taking a step.
DL: If circumstances dictate that you move to a corner outfield position some day, how difficult will that adjustment be?
TH: It’s going to be hard, but I don’t see myself moving no time soon. I keep myself in shape, and I can outrun most 22-year-old guys. But one day I probably will have to move, and even though I won’t have to run as much, my glove will still be there. So I guess maybe it won’t be too bad–just no time soon.
DL: To this point of your career, which moments stand out the most?
TH: For me, individually, it would have to be in the All-Star game. You know, taking a home run away from the home run king. To take a home run away from Barry Bonds, in my first All-Star game, that was pretty awesome. To make a highlight like that–I’ve got it on DVD to show my grandkids some day. If you don’t have proof, they’re never going to believe you!
DL: What else stands out?
TH: Definitely making my first All-Star team, and so was my first Gold Glove. Actually, my highlight was just making the big leagues. In 1997 I was able to get to the big leagues, and I remember being in Baltimore, in Camden Yards, when they were getting 55,000 a game. I went in to pinch-run, and being there was my dream having come true.
DL: When you think baseball history and great defensive outfielders, who comes to mind?
TH: I think about Willie Mays. I think about Ken Griffey Jr., who is one of my favorite players. I think about Andruw Jones, who is one of the best in the game. But definitely the first one I think of is Willie Mays. I’ve seen those highlights where he’s making the over-the-head catch and throwing the ball back in. That’s who really comes to mind. That’s who you heard about, and read about in history books, when I was growing up as a kid.
DL: Give us Torii Hunter’s all-time fantasy team. You’re in center field; who are at the other positions?
TH: (laughs) Oh, man! I would say Ken Griffey Jr. in right. Willie Mays and I will have to battle it out in center field. And I think I’ll go with Andre Dawson as my other outfielder.
DL: What about the rest of your team?
TH: Man! You’re catching me off guard with this. Who’s a good first baseman? Man! Let’s go with Mickey Mantle. Second base: Ernie Banks. Shortstop: Alex Rodriguez. Third base would be Cal Ripken Jr. He’s going to play every day. He’s a workhorse, so I can count on him every day. Catching would be Ivan Rodriguez. Pitching: Bob Gibson!
DL: Jackie Robinson isn’t your second baseman?
TH: Well, Jackie is known for being the first black player in the game, but from the stories I’ve heard I don’t think he was ever the greatest player out there. So I know all about the history, but I don’t believe he was the best second baseman ever to play.
DL: Tell us about the Torii Hunter Project.
TH: The Torii Hunter Project is something I came up with to get inner-city kids playing the game again. A lot of African American players–a lot of players, period–donated a lot of money last year; I think we raised over $200,000. We got 16 teams, from all over the country, to come out to Williamsport, Pennsylvania to have what you might call an urban Little League World Series. We’ve got teams from the south side of Chicago, Tampa, Compton, Virginia, the Bronx, New Haven, Connecticut. Man, from all over. You know, a lot of kids don’t get a chance to get away from their environment. They don’t get to do a lot of things, like fly in a plane, or go hiking in the mountains. This gives them a chance to do all of those things, and you don’t forget about stuff like that. I use baseball to give them those opportunities.
DL: You’ve been nominated for this year’s Clemente Award.
TH: Yes. The Clemente Award recognizes guys for what they do off the field, and that’s a big honor for me. Roberto Clemente did a lot off the field, so to be known for the Clemente Award–I’m definitely honored. It means a lot to me, and it’s something a lot of players should see. A lot of guys will see that and think, “Wow. I think I want to get that award someday.” It will help motivate them to go out and do more off the field.
DL: What do you see yourself doing after baseball?
TH: I can see myself being a husband and a great father. Other than that, I definitely want to be on TV, and maybe be an analyst. Maybe have my own radio show. And definitely get into the community and help get African American kids playing the game again.