I have talked to Torii Hunter a number of times, but I don't know if he knows my name or would even recognize my face. This is partly because of the nature of athlete-media interactions. There are a lot of us, a lot of them, and because talking to each other is a professional requirement for both, you can do it several times without developing any kind of relationship.
But it is also because Hunter might be the most media-friendly player in baseball. Most media people know it, so everybody tries to talk to Hunter. You are guaranteed a friendly, quotable, honest conversation. If every athlete were like Hunter, then any moron could do my job. (Hey, pipe down back there.)
Some athletes turn on the charm for the media, but that's not Hunter. The charm is almost always on — for everybody. He has probably earned a few million extra dollars in his career just for being a "good clubhouse guy." I know you can't quantify that with a stat like Personality Above Replacement Person, and I don't know what it is worth. But if your shortstop is jealous of your first baseman's salary, and your leftfielder is depressed because his wife is sleeping with his personal trainer, it's good to have Hunter around to talk them through it. A baseball clubhouse is a workplace. If it all possible, you want to hire people that other people want to be around.
And yet, there was Hunter this week, calling St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Mike Berardino a "prick" four times. This was absurd on several levels.
1. This should have been the warmest, easiest media gathering of Hunter's life. He signed with the Minnesota Twins, the team where he established himself as an All-Star. Minnesotans pride themselves on recognizing and appreciating niceness, and they know how nice Hunter usually is. The Twins have been desperate for some good news lately. This should have been it.
2. Berardino didn't do anything wrong. He asked Hunter two fair questions. One was whether Hunter's public support of Arkansas Governor-elect Asa Hutchinson affected his free agency.
Hunter has been fairly outspoken in his opinion that homosexuality is wrong, and that seems to be a driving force behind his support for Hutchinson. Hunter's view is less popular by the week. He is still a good player, but is far from a great player at this stage of his career. It's reasonable to wonder if some teams, especially in more liberal markets, decided for the first time in Hunter's career that he isn't worth the potential headache.
3. How can you make a public political endorsement, then complain when somebody asks about it?
4. Hunter seemed to object to Berardino asking two questions, but they were different and fair questions. One was about whether it affected free agency. The other was whether he will continue to espouse these views. That was it. Hunter actually answered the second question, saying he would not keep bringing up the topic, and that would have been the end of it if he hadn't called out the writer.
5. Hunter has been a professional athlete for two decades. He must answer 1,000 questions per season, and he shouldn't have been surprised by these. The topic has been raised before.
6. I can't help it. I hear Hunter's views on homosexuality and I think "what a prick..." even though I have occasionally chosen to talk to him specifically because of how nice he is.
Naturally, this has all led to one of those media mini-firestorms wherein people call Hunter a bigot and a jerk, and some Twins fans think Berardino was being unprofessional, and it makes you wonder how the heck we got here.
For me, though, this is one of those moments where you start to understand how somebody you like can hold views you don't respect at all. Hunter grew up a devout Christian in Arkansas. His father Theotis is a crack addict. Hunter would probably say that he would not have made his journey to baseball stardom without his religious beliefs, and he was taught that homosexuality is a sin.
If he had grown up in a non-religious but loving family in New York or Northern California, Hunter would probably feel differently. I hold out hope that his views will evolve over time, and he will come to understand that homosexuality is not evil or a threat. But Hunter may feel this way for the rest of his life.
You might wonder how Hunter and Berardino can get along all season after this. I suspect they will get along a lot better than you think. Berardino has a job to do, and part of that job includes talking to the Twins' rightfielder. And Hunter will probably get over this quickly and be as nice to Berardino as he is to everybody else. There is a simple reason for that: Deep down, Torii Hunter is not a prick.