“When I was a kid I always wanted to get out of Pine Bluff. … It’s in the top five of the worst cities to live in, as far as crime, drugs and no jobs. … I wanted to have a family, but I did not want to raise a family where I was raised. So coming up in that environment, it motivated me to excel.”
— Los Angeles Angels outfielder Torii Hunter, a nine-time Gold Glove winner and four-time All-Star
TEMPE, Ariz. — Torii Hunter is a star, but he knows as well as anyone how difficult it is to reach the major leagues.
That’s hard to believe when you watch him play. Hunter lashes balls out of parks with a powerful, right-handed stroke. He glides through the outfield effortlessly chasing fly balls. And at age 35, the man they call “Spider-Man” still occasionally dazzles with some wall-crawling home-run robbery.
But it wasn’t an easy road for Hunter, even after the Twins made him a first-round pick (20th overall) in the 1993 draft. He spent six full seasons in the minor leagues, the bulk of it below Triple-A. He had to grow up along the way. Hunter had to learn to balance his desire to please his coaches with the need to trust in his own talent. And he had to focus on baseball while knowing his family was struggling back home.
It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a 17-year-old, no matter how talented.
Hunter knew as a kid he had to get out of Pine Bluff, Ark., and baseball was his ticket, which he discovered while playing in a Junior Olympics tournament in Boise, Idaho, at age 16.
That tournament was his first time out of Pine Bluff, and he quickly realized there was more to the world than his community rife with drugs and violence. Back home, Hunter carried a gun for protection in high school. Now, he knew it didn’t have to be that way.
“It opened my eyes and broadened my horizons,” Hunter said. “I was staying with a host family (in Boise) who ate breakfast together, who ate dinner together. When I was in Arkansas, we really didn’t do much together.
“My parents worked hard. My dad worked hard late at night, my mom was a schoolteacher, she was gone all day during the day. There was never a family because my dad would work at night when my mom was coming home.”
His father, Theotis, was a hard worker but also struggled with a drug addiction that put more stress on a family already stretched thin.
Young Torii was suddenly his family’s breadwinner. The Twins gave him a $500,000 signing bonus after drafting him in 1993 and much of what remained after taxes went to help his family, including buying cars for his parents and brothers. He laughs while admitting throwing some “awesome” parties. “Then you know, you run out after so long.”
It was hard being a teenager in the minor leagues. Where most players would go out for meals, Hunter would take the $11 in daily meal money and pick up some lunch meat and a loaf of bread at the nearest gas station. He’d keep his meat on ice in the hotel sink and feed himself a steady diet of sandwiches.
“When you have family issues, it’s tough,” Hunter said. “My off-the-field issues were holding me back. My dad was on drugs, the financial situation wasn’t right. … I would have $30 in my pocket. I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t do nothing.
Hunter felt the pressure to reach the majors so he could take care of his family. But the pressure itself was almost too much to bear. Every little slump gnawed at his confidence, every setback carried the extra burden of knowing that it didn’t hurt just him, but his family as well.
Hunter advanced through the minors anyway, spurred on by his desire to escape Pine Bluff. He was also mentored by future Hall of Famers and fellow African-American outfielders Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield, both of whom took interest in Hunter when he went to major league spring training camp with the Twins in 1994.
“They drilled me every day,” Hunter said. “I felt like I was in school again. They were just teaching me about life, about money, about this and that, about the life of the athlete. Rest in peace, Kirby Puckett, but I love him. He’s like a big brother of mine. Dave Winfield was just there two years and then he left, but he played a big role in my life.”
It was a phone call from a retired Puckett that helped turn Hunter’s career around. The year was 2000, a year that was supposed to be Hunter’s second full season with the Twins. But Hunter was struggling, hitting just .207 at the end of May, and manager Tom Kelly sent him down to Triple-A Salt Lake.
Puckett called Hunter and asked what was going on. Hunter told him he was trying to hit like the coaches wanted him to hit, not wanting to be labeled uncoachable. Puckett told him not to worry about that, to do what he had done to get to the majors, to trust in his God-given talent.
“That’s when I said ‘Forget that. No more,’ ” Hunter said. “From then on I just did everything the way I wanted to do. I had the leg-kick like Kirby. I was doing everything, hitting homers. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!”
Hunter hit .368, went deep 18 times and drove in 61 runs in just 55 games at Salt Lake that summer. Kelly brought him back to Minnesota, and Hunter never looked back.
Now, Hunter sees himself as an elder statesman and a role model for his Los Angeles Angels teammates. He wants to do for others what Puckett and Winfield did for him. Last season he volunteered to move to right field so his team could make room for speedy youngster Peter Bourjos in center. And this spring he has appointed himself mentor to Angels prospect Jeremy Moore, a 22-year-old outfielder from Shreveport, La.
“I cling to him because I know what he’s going through,” Hunter said. “I talk to him about life, I talk to him about his appearance, I talk to him about his vocabulary. … I talk to him about all those things because somebody talked to me before, that’s when you know it’s in you. You can’t just learn it.”
From humble beginnings, through the hardship of the minor leagues and a tenuous home life, Torii Hunter molded himself into a star. Now all he wants is one piece of jewelry to top it off.
“I just wanted one Gold Glove and I’ve got nine,” he said. “I just wanted one All-Star and I got four. I’ve been in the playoffs six or seven times. I’m happy, I just need the ring.”
Chasing the dream: A special series
Rangers pitcher Colby Lewis thought he would finish his career in Japan, but he found his form overseas and made a triumphant return. Full story
Bob Harkins is the baseball editor at NBCSports.com and a writer for HardballTalk.com. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/Bharks
HBT: Robinson Cano homered twice while David Phelps had the longest outing of his career as the Yankees topped the Blue Jays 7-2 this afternoon at Yankee Stadium.
Taking a look at some of the greatest catchers off all time.