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Twins mentorship program still alive with Hunter and Hicks

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FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) When the Minnesota Twins brought back Torii Hunter this season, that $10.5 million was earmarked for more than just a reliable power hitter and right fielder.

They wanted a leader for this young, struggling team. They needed some energy in what many times in recent years had been a lifeless clubhouse. The unofficial outfield mentorship program that has existed on and off since the end of Kirby Puckett's career was ready to be revived.

''We're in the field together. We're here next to each other. We just sit and talk, and that's how we get all our information, whether it's off the field, financially, family, friends or just baseball. We have a chance to meet with each other and become like brothers,'' Hunter said of his relationship with young outfielders Aaron Hicks, Jordan Schafer and Byron Buxton, all of whom have cubicles near Hunter's in the spring training clubhouse.

That's not coincidence.

''You hope they say, `Hey, I'm next to Torii Hunter. This is going to be a good thing for me,''' manager Paul Molitor said, adding: ''His energy, his enthusiasm, there's a lot of accrued knowledge there that I'm sure he'll want to pass on. We all know what it's like when you have a presence like that.''

In 1994, when Hunter was an 18-year-old at his first spring training, he soaked up Puckett and Dave Winfield, two eventual members of the Hall of Fame. They never let him pay for a meal. These days, Hunter has been doing the same. His best advice?

''Worry about the things that you can control, because the things you can't? All it does is stresses you out and sends you home,'' Hunter said.

Puckett, who died in 2006, was who Hunter looked up to. Then Hunter, who left the Twins as a free agent after the 2007 season, became a mentor to a fellow former first-round draft pick and aspiring center fielder, Denard Span.

Span was traded away after the 2012 season. Hicks became the starting center fielder and leadoff hitter straight out of spring training in 2013, with Double-A his highest level of experience to date. He struck out three times in the season opener and never found a groove, eventually getting sent back to the minors. His struggles might not have been preventable, but had Hunter been around then he certainly would have benefited from the guidance.

Hicks was given the job again last year, though batting lower in the lineup, and he failed to hold it once more. Schafer will provide plenty of competition for playing time in center, with Hunter in right and Oswaldo Arcia in left, but Buxton isn't considered ready yet after an injury-marred 2014.

So here's another opportunity for Hicks, barely still a prospect at age 25.

''The guy wants to be the best. He wants to learn. You can't ask for anything more,'' Hunter said. ''Some guys, you can lead them to the water. You just can't make them drink. This guy wants to drink. I like that about him.''

Both Hicks and Hunter arrived in Fort Myers well ahead of the voluntary reporting date. Hicks, a scratch golfer, has agreed to give Hunter tips on the course in exchange for advice on the field and off it. They've spent plenty of time together already, and the first full-squad workout hasn't even happened yet.

''When you have somebody there that can help you when you're struggling, when you're having a tough time, just to be like, `Yo, I've been here before,''' Hicks said, describing his appreciation of Hunter's presence.

''If you succeed all the time then you never know what failure's really like,'' Hicks said. ''So it's learning from your mistakes and being able to not repeat `em.''

His confidence is still there, despite that .293 on-base percentage in 150 major league games. Molitor has helped by declaring his desire for Hicks to win the job this spring, for a third time.

''I've just got to go out there and show people,'' Hicks said, ''that I can be the center fielder that everybody wants me to be and also that I want myself to be.''