Not more than a second after defeating his teammate Mike Napoli at an intense game of dominos, Angels center fielder Torii Hunter proclaimed himself, "Hula Dula, the Domino Rula." It's just another asset the Halos aquired when they signed Hunter to a five-year, $90 million dollar contract in the offseason. They are pretty happy with his production on the field, too: He's batting .282 with nine home runs, nine steals and 37 RBIs to go along with his stellar glovework.
Hunter took time to talk about how he grew to love his profession, his favorite players' greasy hairdo and the legend of Hula Dula, the Domino Rula.
Holden Kushner: Torii you grew up in Arkansas with a love and a passion for this game. How accessible was it for you to get to a baseball field and play this game?
Torii Hunter: Well, growing up in the '80s it was easy, we had ballparks everywhere and we had them at our schools and different places like that. We'd get all the guys in the neighborhood together and we'd play this game called "three rows and one hike." The guy that's hitting, if he hits the ball on the ground three times to the same guy he has to switch places with the guy on defense and if he hits it in the air or on one hop he has to switch. So all you try to do is hit it away from everybody, hit line drives, and hit it away from guys who might already have one hike already, and that kind of helped me with hitting.
HK: The Washington Nationals are opening up an urban baseball academy in town and I remember last year you saying there may not be any more African Americans in the game in a decade or so. The comment was not said to be taken seriously -- it was exaggerated. That being said though, there's obviously a problem in the game and this is just one of the things to get urban kids back into it. What do you think about these urban academies and just trying to get the game back into the inner cities?
TH: That's all you can do is try. I think it's family, it's our heritage -- baseball is our heritage, and I think in the families, there's 60 percent of our families in urban communities that are single-parent homes and a lot of dads are missing out there in those urban communities, and baseball is a game where you've got to go out and play catch with a kid and show him the ropes of baseball. There's a lot of dad's missing that and that's one reason why. There's lots of reasons why there's a decrease in African Americans in baseball but all we can do is go out there and try. That's what these urban youth academies are trying to do, they're trying to build them up in the United States and do their part.
HK: Torii what in particular drew you to this game, and has kept you so in love and interested in this game?
TH: My granddad was the one who taught me how to throw, he played a lot of baseball around the neighborhoods back in the '40s and '50s and he fell in love with the game. He played a bit in the Negro Leagues, so he was one of those guys that kind of raised me in the game. I started watching baseball with my granddad when I was like 4 or 5 years old and I would go over there and watch baseball with the Atlanta Braves, and different teams like that -- the St. Louis Cardinals, the Cubs. I fell in love with Andre Dawson, had a jheri curl, had the same batting stance as Dawson, so he was one of my favorite players, but my granddad was the one who actually got me in the game.
HK: Did I hear you say you had a curl? Like a jheri curl?
TH: Yeah, I had a jheri curl, I wanted to be just like Andre Dawson. My hat was greasy and my collar was messed up.
HK: Are you yearning for the days of your jheri curl and praying to grow your hair out or are you shaving now?
TH: Man, I cut it off about 15 years ago, 20 years ago. It went out of style. If you had a curl you'd get laughed at, but now my bald head is slick and the ladies love it.
HK: Obviously making a seamless transition to this new ballclub; with your personality it's easy to get along everywhere, but talk about the transition to the Angels.
TH: It was easy, man. Garrett Anderson was one of the guys I knew already and Gary Matthews Jr., Vlady, I've played against him since '96 when we were in Double-A, so I've known the core guys for a while. But some of the younger guys, they're down to Earth, man, they're funny. Jered Weaver, John Lackey -- these guys are crazy, man and they have me laughing every day man so the transition was easy. The coaching staff is great -- they have personality and they just want you to go out and play hard for them every day. I mean, when you're on grass and you're under the sun, playing in front of 40,000 a game, and you're in LA --dude, I can't be upset about nothing. This is perfect.
HK: When you were in Minnesota and you were playing every year, and you had a chance to get to the postseason, did you feel like you had a chance to win the thing every year like you should do here?
TH: For a while, there was a lot of change in the Twins organization because of budget restrictions. Every year we had to get rid of a guy that was a key part of our success and before you know it we were depleted and you had a lot of younger guys coming up -- that's probably going to happen again. But I just didn't feel like we had that chance to go all the way with the Twins. We'd win the division or come close to winning the division but we couldn't go all the way. Over here, we haven't won the division yet but I think we have a good chance of winning it and I love my chances over here with all the athletes, all the pitching we have, the defense, the hitting, and so I'm really, really excited about my chances here.
HK: Torii, a hot button topic here that everybody's been talking about -- and really we've been talking about it for three years -- is maple bats. Are maple bats really dangerous, or are we talking about them because an umpire got hurt last night?
TH: That could have happened with any bat that I know of, but they do break differently, they break differently than a bat that's oak. Sometimes they'll break and you'll be like, "How did it break like that?" It kind of splits in two or something like that, so they are different. I don't know if they're too dangerous, but bats have been breaking for a hundred years I think, so all you can do is examine it and see if maple wood is different than oak, and we'll go from there. I think it's a big fuss, a big talk, but those balls are getting hit hard by maple bats and guys love them.
HK: Finally, who is Hula Dula, the Domino Rula?
TH: Well, you know a lot of guys challenge the Hula Dula in dominos and I'm Hula Dula the Domino Rula; until you beat me you can't take my name and all you can do is address me as Hula Dula -- and Mike Napoli found that out today. And I'm definitely Hula Dula, the Domino Rula until he's able to beat me.