Growing up, I was a huge fan of Torii Hunter. Being a bit too young to really enjoy the 1991 World Series, not to say anything of the '87 version, seeing the Twins start to turn things around in 2001 and then rally to a division title and a trip to the American League Championship Series in 2002 was a definitive moment in my Twins fandom.
I loved Brad Radke. Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins turned lousy careers as starters into good careers as relievers, which was fun. Corey Koskie, Cristian Guzman, A.J. Pierzynski, Jacque Jones, Doug Mientkiewicz - there was something satisfying about seeing these guys win and mature together, saving baseball in Minnesota as we know it. But none of those players had the impact on my emotional attachment to the team as did Torii Hunter.
That's me, in the cover photo of this story. On my 25th birthday, when I was living in New York City, my then-girlfriend bought me an authentic Hunter jersey. I still have it, and to this day it's the only jersey I own.
Why was Hunter so important to me, so integral to my relationship to the Twins as a fan? It's hard to say, and it's probably a lot of little things. He was the first affable and readily identifiable player on the team, or at least he was the first Twins player to attain such a level of national notoriety, since Kirby Puckett. Puckett was one of Hunter's heroes, too, and at the time that was important because what baseball fan in Minnesota didn't grow up with Kirby as one of their childhood idols? Hunter was a legitimate star; he had power, he had speed, he played in center field and earned the Twins a nightly spot on SportsCenter, you just knew he wanted to be a leader, and he claimed to love the team and its fans. He, at least in my eyes, adopted Minnesota as his home.
For all of those reasons and more, Hunter - for me - transcended the level of your typical athlete. You know how it happens - sometimes, for whatever reason, certain people end up meaning more to you. This occurs with family and friends, but it also happens with people to whom you have no personal affiliation: authors, politicians, actors, musicians and bands, and yes, athletes. What happens to those people and what they say, what they stand for, what they believe or don't believe, it has a larger impact on you than most other people who could be considered their contemporaries...especially when it's an issue close to your heart.
As a result, Hunter's stance on sexual orientation was particularly disappointing. Everyone should be treated equally and everyone deserves the same rights, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, color of their skin, or sexual orientation, and in a break from one of my tenets on this website, I'll be upfront and say that this is a very important issue to me. Saying that any of those things is "not right" is, essentially, an issue of equality. I feel as though equality should kind of be a no-brainer. When it's not a no-brainer to others, I'm a little surprised; when it's not a no-brainer to someone who means something more to me, I'm disappointed.
I'm not naive enough to think he's alone in his beliefs, and no doubt I've been fans of other players/people/politicians/actors/musicians who have the same beliefs, but the distinction here is that A) most of those people don't make those beliefs public, and B) most of those people haven't meant to me what Hunter has meant. I'm also aware of where Hunter comes from and his upbringing, but I'm not going to use those as excuses.
The juncture I've found myself at in the past, and now again that Hunter is back with the Twins, is a place where I'm having difficulty separating something I feel quite strongly about from someone whom I have looked up to. It's an issue where I've ended up asking myself a number of questions to which I don't necessarily have a lot of answers. Am I advocating Hunter's beliefs by continuing to cheer for him? Should I find it easier to separate my personal beliefs from the teams and players I root for? Maybe I'm just over-thinking the whole thing; it wouldn't be the first time.
I realize that reconciling differing viewpoints with people you look up to is going to be easier for some people than others; in most instances I'd have no issue with that. For any number of reasons, this time I'm having a harder time with it - perhaps because of the issue, perhaps because of the person involved, probably both. Sooner rather than later I'll have to find my middle ground, but until then: have you ever experienced something similar?