Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Playing the Long Game

If circumstances had broken out differently, football might have claimed Torii Hunter as one of its own. Early in life Hunter excelled as both a quarterback and safety; so much so that during his first couple of years at Pine Bluff High School in Arkansas, Torii was better known for his football exploits than anything that happened on a baseball diamond. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree apparently, 3 of Hunter's teenage sons will enter college this fall on football scholarships at different schools. Fate would have other plans for the eldest Hunter however; as time passed Torii also became a genuine baseball star. By the time Hunter ended his high school career with back to back All State selections in the outfield, talent hungry scouts were eager to steer him towards a career in professional baseball. If he'd been born a little sooner, perhaps Hunter would not have had to choose between the gridiron and the diamond at all; as a youth he idolized two sport phenom Bo Jackson at Auburn and then as a pro for both the LA Raiders and Kansas City Royals. In retrospect, maybe that's why Torii Hunter chose a life in baseball after all; the haunting image of a broken Jackson limping off the field serving as an early reminder that baseball players have long careers while football players usually don't.

Regardless of what prompted Hunter to make his decision so many years ago, football's loss has clearly been baseball's gain. For sixteen and a half major league seasons Hunter has patrolled the outfield with the instincts of a free safety; first for the Minnesota Twins and LA Angels, now for the Tigers of Detroit. In exchange for his dedication, baseball has heaped numerous accolades on Hunter's mantle; 9 gold glove awards, 4 All Star appearances and a Silver Slugger in 2009 speak of both his excellence and his longevity. Naturally, the sport has also rewarded Torii handsomely in a monetary sense; it's a rare 37 year old ballplayer who can command the kind of scratch the Tigers laid out for Hunter this offsesaon. Tigers owner Mike Ilitch Sr gave Hunter 26 million reasons over 2 years to come to Motown but that isn't why Torii is here; he actually took a 6 million dollar pay cut from his salary with the Angels last season. Torii Hunter joined the Tigers because he and Ilitch are both burning in the same fire; both men are chasing a World Series on the wrong side of father time. For Hunter the championship would be his first, for the 84 year old Ilitch Sr, potentially his last. Neither man believes his life will be complete without one.

For most of his life in baseball, patience has been one of Torii Hunter's strongest virtues. It was patience that carried Hunter through 6 long years in the minors after he was selected 20th overall by the Twins in the 1993 draft. It was patience that prevented Hunter from retiring in 2000 when friction with then manager Tom Kelly caused his confidence to plummet and eventually lead to a demotion back to Triple-A ball. Even now it is patience that allows him to extend his time as a high impact player in baseball. For much of his career Torii has been a free swinging, power hitter with track star legs and a Hall of Fame glove. The Twins and then the Angels paid Hunter a princely sum to crush the ball deep and manufacture runs on offense. Eventually however a combination of age and the presence of stronger, younger hitters like Albert Pujols and Mike Trout moved Torii into a supporting role. Rather than raging against the realities of his situation, Hunter began to take a more patient, cautious approach at the plate. Freed from the burden of carrying his team's offense the veteran transformed himself into a smarter, safer hitter with better positional control for the good of the squad. By the time Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski was looking for a strong defensive outfielder to hit in front of superstars Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera, Torii had already transformed himself into the perfect player for the role.

If it was in part patience that led the Detroit Tigers to choose Torii Hunter, it was a distinct lack of patience that lead Hunter to choose them. Despite being 38 years old this July the veteran is still in fantastic shape and performing at a high level both at the plate and in the outfield. Hunter is a realist however; he knows that no man can play baseball forever.  Coming into free agency this offseason, Hunter had already decided to go to whichever team would give him the best shot at winning a World Series ring. Torri chose Detroit without even visiting another ball club, explaining simply "I've come to the best team." Although his approach to free agency was single-minded, Hunter is no heartless mercenary. At every stop in his professional career, Torii's sense of humor, positive attitude and upbeat personality have won over fans, coaches and teammates alike. Although he has in the past made controversial statements in the media about race and sexual orientation in baseball he is widely regarded within the league as thoughtful, intelligent and a strong team leader. After more than 16 years in the majors, it's still hard to find anyone in baseball who doesn't like Torii Hunter. It speaks to Hunter's adaptability and easy going nature that reporters wrote glowingly of his seamless transition into the Tigers family; on the first day of training camp. By the time the Tigers left Florida, a casual observer would never know that Hunter wasn't a 10 year veteran in the organization.

So far in 2013, the marriage is working out well for both Hunter and Detroit. At just past the one-third mark of the season, Torri has appeared in 48 games and is batting .316 with 2 homeruns and 23 RBIs. As previously mentioned he's also batting smarter; his .363 OBP is just a smidgen lower than the career high he set last season in Los Angeles and he's already crossed home plate 31 times as a Tiger. Off the diamond, Hunter seems to have developed a strong relationship with local fans and he's even found time to mentor Austin Jackson on the finer points of playing center field. Finally he's provided Detroit with a reliable defensive presence in right field for the first time in years; in addition to a number of spectacular catches Hunter has only be charged with one error this season. As a team, the Tigers are currently 35 and 25; a record that could certainly be better but is still good enough for 1st place in the woeful American League Central division. Of course in the bigger picture this is all largely irrelevant to Hunter and his new teammates. You don't win championships in June and the success or failure of both the Torii Hunter signing and the Tigers' season in general will be determined in post-season play. Hunter has been to the playoffs six times in his career while the Tigers are fresh off an ALCS appearance and a World Series loss in the past two years. The Tigers aren't trying to be good in the regular season, they're trying to be the best team in baseball when the dust finally settles. Anything less than winning the brass ring will be considered a failure within the organization.

Sixteen and a half years is a long time to wait for anything; even for a man as patient as Torii Hunter. If the weight of time wears on him however, the ever-smiling veteran has a funny way of showing it. As his career enters what will likely be it's twilight, Hunter is still cracking jokes, throwing up high-fives with his teammates and playing like a man in his late 20's. Maybe, deep down inside he believes his long wait is almost over. Something tells me that would sit just fine with Mr Ilitch and the Tiger faithful.

- Sportsball Chic

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