In the wake of his Tigers being swept by the Orioles, Torii Hunter has announced he's strongly considering retirement. Thirty-nine years old, and having lost several steps in the outfield and on the bases, Hunter has become much less effective over the past few seasons. However, he still hit .286/.319/.446, a 111 OPS+ (his career average, actually), and I would be shocked if some team, perhaps a team that we are all very familiar with and for whom he played 11 seasons , needing a corner outfielder, came to him and offered a one-year farewell contract. Essentially, I'll believe Torii Hunter's retiring when he doesn't show up at somebody's spring training camp.
My relationship with Torii Hunter is complicated, mirroring my own growth and development over time. I was away at college when he suffered through 1999 and 2000 as an abysmal hitter, dealing growing pains of my own. I connected with him strongly when we both broke out in 2001. He hit .261/.306/.479 with 27 homers and gold glove caliber defense for the first good Twins team in nine years, I spent the summer trying, and failing, to be a writer in northern Wisconsin, listening to him on the radio and talking on the phone long distance with the woman who would eventually become my wife. Over the course of that summer, he stopped pretending he was a slap-hitter, and I stopped pretending I was Ernest Hemingway. We both grew up a little.
From then until 2007, it was hard not to love him. He played what looked like exceptional defense and hit .272/.326/.484 with 178 homers, made the All Star team twice, and won a Gold Glove in all seven years. Baseball Reference says he was worth between 26 and 27 wins in that time, almost four a year (Fangraphs pegs him at a shade above three wins a year). His teams made the postseason four times and finished below .500 once (in 2007). He was a damn good player, and I appreciated getting to watch him as I fumbled my way through graduate school, getting married, having my first child, and making my first forays into writing again.
Then he left. And in my mind, he didn't just leave. The money he took didn't bother me. After all, the Twins had little business matching the Angels' five year, $89.5 million offer at that point for a 32 year old with declining range, even if he did go on to have several great seasons in Southern California. And I can't blame a guy for taking that much money. I was upset about something else. I can't find reference to it anywhere on the internet anymore, so maybe I dreamed it, but I remember him saying something about Twins fans not really understanding baseball. How dare he? I remember thinking, for I am included in that group!
Hunter's subsequent strong seasons were then peppered with controversial statements that belied his sterling reputation in the media. In talking about the relative lack of African-Americans in the game, he correctly noted that dark-skinned Dominican players are distinct, but causing controversy by saying, "They're not us. They're imposters." He fought with Albert Pujols in the clubhouse. We learned he similarly threw a punch at Justin Morneau, hitting Nick Punto instead. He said he would not be comfortable having a gay teammate. He publicly commented on Prince Fielder's divorce before Fielder made the news public. And he counterfactually accused Lew Ford of refusing to hit against Mariano Rivera in the 2004 ALDS. As I became more of an internet firebrand, the kind of guy who would get his blog kicked off of ESPN's SweetSpot Network, Hunter seemed more and more to me like the kind of hypocritical windbag who deserved to be mocked and scorned on the digital pages. I gradually began to disdain him and mocked his teammates and the media who continued to heap praise on him.
Over the last couple years, however, I think I've matured as a writer and a fan, just as Torii Hunter was settling into his elder statesman role in Detroit. I've had the opportunity to talk to writers and players off the record about Hunter, and to a man, they tell me how warm and friendly he is. How you always feel like he's present for your conversations, and he takes the time to help them do their jobs. They love him. And, well, that kind of insight, freely given and with no ulterior motive, can't help but affect your perceptions. I don't like the things that he's said, particularly his comments about gay players and his intimations about Lew Ford. But it's hard to know for certain what the context of his clubhouse scuffles were, and I think it takes a particularly negative view of Hunter to read his comments as deliberately malicious. Just unrefined.
Torii and I have matured together. As his bat has cooled, so has my temper, and it's unfortunate that his maturation has made him a less effective player, while mine has (hopefully) made me a better writer. At least, now, I can appreciate Hunter for what he was: a damn fine ballplayer for a very long time, one of the fifteen or so best Twins ever, and one of the most respected figures in the game. Frankly, I wouldn't mind having one more chance to root for him, if the Twins decide to have another farewell this spring while they sort out the Santana/Hicks/Buxton/Sano/Plouffe situation.