Torii Hunter spent two seasons in a Tiger uniform and his impact was felt throughout his stay as a valuable member of the lineup, as a right fielder, and most importantly as a clubhouse leader. But now he wears the uniform of the Minnesota Twins, and not surprisingly that team is in the hunt for a wild card spot. Hunter’s leadership is a big reason.
When he was in Motown it was Hunter who kept the dugout loose with his sense of humor and that toothy million dollar smile. It was Hunter who tutored Austin Jackson on his play in center field and on how to deal with slumps at the plate. Hunter was the man who helped deflect some of the what on teammates by always making sure to give reporters plenty to fill their notebooks. He also challenged teammates to be professionals and to play the game the right way. As one of the few players remaining in the game who had played at Tiger Stadium, Hunter understood the Detroit tradition and he was proud to wear the Old English D. When the team won division titles and playoff series he was the one who led in zany celebration rituals. He stormed into Jim Leyland’s office after winning the 2013 AL Central title and carried the manager into the clubhouse to party with the players. As Smoky moonwalked across the clubhouse carpet you understood that Hunter was the glue that cemented the many sections of the Tiger team together.
But then he was gone last December when he signed a “reunion contract” with the Twins, the team that had drafted him and for whom he starred for for a dozen seasons. On the surface it seemed like a sentimental last hurrah deal for Torii: he returns to Minnesota where the faithful midwestern fans there can cheer him on as he ends his career even though the team will probably be mediocre. But Hunter’s return to The Land of 10,000 Lakes has been anything but a fade to black. As of this writing the Twins are one-half game out of the wild card spot.
Hunter’s baseball-playing skills are diminishing for sure, they do for all players who reach their 40th birthday (Torii hit that milestone on July 18th). But his leadership qualities are only getting better. The Twins rank eighth in the league in runs scored and their pitching staff has been battered and patched together and rates 11th of the 15 teams in the AL in earned run average. This is not a team of stars, it’s more like a team of aging veterans, marginal big leaguers, and quite a few untested youngsters. Hunter’s influence has provided a jolt and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“We wanted Torii to come in here and be a leader,” first-year manager Paul Molitor has said, “and he’s been more than we could have ever expected.”
Hunter has more home runs this season than he had in either of his years in Detroit, his power is still there. He can go get the ball in right field even though his range has decreased and his arm is only average. He doesn’t steal bases like he once did and he’s never been a big on-base percentage guy. On a cold black-and-white ledger his 2015 season doesn’t seem so special. But since May baseball experts have been making “any-minute-they-will-collapse” predictions about the Twins. Yet the team is still in position to grab a playoff spot. Hunter has contributed a lot to that unexpected development.
Why did the Tigers choose to let Hunter walk? Dave Dombrowski’s hands were essentially tied. In December 2014 the Tigers had tens of millions of dollars on the books for their two marquee stars, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. They were entering the walk year of Max Scherzer’s contract and were unsure about his future and the future of Victor Martinez and David Price. There’s a limit even to the oodles of pizza money that owner Mike Ilitch has in his vault. A 39-year old outfielder didn’t seem like a good investment. The market seemed to indicate that Hunter would demand $10 million a year and he wanted multiple years. Hunter inked a deal with the Twins for $10.5 million and a single year.
In retrospect it seems the failure to invite Hunter to stay in Motown may be one of the worst mistakes of the last few seasons. For a single season and less money that they paid busts Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan, Detroit could still have #48 in their clubhouse. Instead they have to watch while their old friend leads the Twins to a resurgent season.