Prize Catch With his fearless fielding and a suddenly sizzling bat, Twins centerfielder Torii Hunter has been a gem for his endangered ballclub

April 28, 2002

Were there a checklist for Minnesota Twins centerfielder Torii
Hunter's qualifications as an emerging major league star, it
would go something like this:

Speed--check.

Hustle--check.

Instincts--check.

Nifty glovework--check.

Leaping ability--check.

Strong arm--check.

Cup--

Cup?--uhh....

Torii Hunter does not wear a cup. Never has. Sitting by his
locker in the Twins' clubhouse on a recent afternoon, he knocked
on his uniform pants, in the groin area, to prove the point.
There was nary a sound.

When Hunter was a 14-year-old shortstop in a Babe Ruth League
game, he says, a grounder took a sharp bounce and struck him in
the groin. He immediately fell to the ground, screaming in pain.
"You'd think I'd have learned my lesson," he says, laughing, "but
to me, it's about toughness. In this sport you can't be afraid."

Although such a philosophy might take the 26-year-old Hunter from
bass to soprano, it explains his arrival as one of the American
League's top defensive centerfielders and a 2001 Gold Glove
winner. This season he has added punch to match his prowess
afield. At week's end he was leading the league in batting
(.405), tied for fourth in home runs (six) and tied for seventh
in RBIs (16). Hunter's all-around play was a big reason that the
low-budget Twins (at just over $40 million, Minnesota has the
fourth-smallest payroll in the majors) were atop the American
League Central Division after sweeping a three-game series with
the Cleveland Indians.

Hunter has no fear. "To catch a ball," he says, "I'd commit
suicide." In 1999, his first full season as a Twin, he earned a
spot in his pitchers' hearts by routinely robbing hitters of
extra bases with acrobatic catches before crashing into the
outfield wall at breakneck speed. To those who had followed his
career, it was nothing new. On June 21, 1997, Michael Coleman,
an outfielder for the Double A Trenton (N.J.) Thunder, smoked a
shot to deep centerfield at Trenton's Waterfront Park. Just as
the ball was leaving the stadium, Hunter, playing for the New
Britain (Conn.) Rock Cats, leaped, stole Coleman's would-be home
run and then crashed through the eight-foot-high plywood wall
like a rock through construction paper. "That catch," says Al
Newman, Hunter's manager at the time and now Minnesota's third
base coach, "is the most athletically impressive play I've ever
seen."

Upon landing outside the stadium, Hunter was greeted by a fan
walking by. "Dude," the fan said, beer in hand. "where the hell
did you come from?"

Hunter didn't flinch. "I came from inside, man," he said. "How ya
doin'?"

In Minnesota's second game this season, a 1-0 win over the Kansas
City Royals at Kauffman Stadium, Hunter made a catch in the
seventh inning that not only preserved the road win but also was,
as Twins catcher A.J. Pierzynski called it, "one of the best
grabs Torii's come up with--and there have been tons of them."
K.C. designated hitter Mike Sweeney had blasted a mammoth shot to
dead center. "It was out of the stadium," says Pierzynski. "I was
sure of it." But at the last possible second Hunter leaped,
twisted his glove over the wall and came down with the ball in
his glove and a smile from cheek to cheek. "My first reaction
was, Man, did he have another ball in his pocket or something?"
says Pierzynski.

Hunter's defensive secret is no secret at all. Ever since he was
a boy, growing up on the crime-infested east side of Pine Bluff,
Ark., Hunter has possessed, in the words of his older brother,
Taru, "freaky, insane athleticism. I remember when he was 12 and
I said, 'Throw me the ball as hard as you can.' When I caught it,
my glove popped like a firecracker."

During his junior season at Pine Bluff High, in a game against
Little Rock's J.A. Fair High, Hunter stole two home runs by
leaping up against and reaching over the outfield fence. On the
second theft he caught the ball and tumbled over to the other
side. Another time, on a rainy day at Lake Hamilton High in
Pearcy, Hunter hit what Pine Bluff coach Billy Bock says "must be
the longest home run ever by a high schooler." The ball, says
Bock, was out of the stadium before Hunter ran halfway to first
base, clearing an outfield light pole and a building. Later that
evening Bock received a phone call from the Lake Hamilton coach:
Hunter's home run had landed in the mud--550 feet away. "God's
word, that's a true story," says Bock. "Torii's no myth."

Until his junior year Hunter had never seriously imagined himself
as a professional ballplayer. Not only was his best sport
football--Hunter was Pine Bluff's starting quarterback for two
seasons--but he also had no reason to think major league teams
were interested in a skinny outfielder from an Arkansas town. But
before long Hunter was hearing that he was a sure first-round
pick in the June 1993 draft.

On draft day 50 relatives converged on the Hunters' home, where
Torii's mom, Shirley, an elementary school teacher, and dad,
Theotis, an electrical engineer, raised their four sons. Torii,
hoping to stay close to home, walked around in an Atlanta Braves
T-shirt. But right before the 20th pick was made, the Twins
called. The Twins? "I really didn't know who the Twins were,"
says Hunter. "I mean, I knew Kirby Puckett, but I didn't even
know where they were located." Later that afternoon a Little Rock
television station followed Hunter to a mall, where the producer
thought it would be neat for Torii to buy his first Twins cap.
One problem: "None of the stores sold their hat," Hunter says,
laughing. "It was a rough start."

It got rougher. After signing for a $450,000 bonus, Hunter batted
.190 for the Twins' affiliate in the Gulf Coast rookie league,
swinging at pitches way out of the strike zone and seemingly
trying to hit every ball out of the park. It was a recurring
theme over the next four seasons: Hunter tantalized the
organization with catch after miraculous catch but drove coaches
crazy with a reckless approach to hitting. As a result, Hunter
says, numerous minor league instructors insisted that he follow
their directions. "It got to the point where I was listening to
everybody," he says. "I would try hitting the ball the other way
because a coach told me to. Then someone would tell me not to hit
it the other way. Then I should. Then I shouldn't. It was killing
me."

While playing for New Britain in 1997, Hunter, batting in the
.220s, seriously considered quitting baseball to attend college.
But whenever he thought about Pine Bluff, he was reminded that
his struggle was nothing compared to the tough streets of the old
neighborhood, where gangs took over the corners and drugs were
the currency. "How could I give up," Hunter says, "when my life
was so good and so many people back home were battling to make it
every day?"

Near the end of the 1997 season Newman called Hunter into his
office. "Congratulations," he said, "you're going to the Show."
The next evening Hunter was at Camden Yards with the Twins for a
game against the Baltimore Orioles. He returned to the minors
after appearing in that game as a pinch runner, but the trip
accomplished what management had hoped. "Ever since then I've
been a better player," Hunter says. "I knew what it was like to
play in the big leagues, and I badly wanted to get back."

In 1998, with his grip down to the knob and his confidence
soaring, Hunter batted .282 for New Britain and then .337 for
Triple A Salt Lake. The next year he made the Minnesota roster,
and except for 55 games with Salt Lake in 2000, he has been with
the Twins ever since. Last year Hunter hit .261 with 27 home runs
and 92 RBIs.

Now that Ron Gardenhire has replaced Tom Kelly as manager, Hunter
expects even bigger things. "I have a lot of respect for T.K.,
but a lot of us felt like he was on some sort of power trip with
the younger players," says Hunter. "You could hit five bullets to
the shortstop, but you couldn't play if you didn't go the other
way. It was definitely uncomfortable. This season things feel
fresh. It's exciting to be a Twin."

And exciting to be Torii Hunter. In June 2000 Torii and his wife
of five years, Katrina, moved from Pine Bluff to The Colony,
Texas, outside Dallas, where they built a 3,600-square-foot house
chock-full of Nintendos and PlayStations and Xboxes. The couple
has a six-year-old son, Torii Jr., and also raise Torii's
six-year-old son, Monshadrik. (Hunter has two other sons,
Cameron, 9, and Darius, 7. Both live with their mothers in Pine
Bluff.)

Sometimes, when he is standing in centerfield during the national
anthem, Hunter looks all around, overwhelmed by the thought that
he is being paid $2.4 million this season to play baseball. Soon
enough, a screaming drive will come his way, and Hunter will go
balls to the wall to catch it.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Streaking Torii Hunter's hot bat has kept him busy on the base paths for the Twins this season. [T of C] COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JAMES PORTO Real grabberHunter has been known to go over and even through walls to snare would-be homers. COLOR PHOTO: ANN HEISENFELT/AP Stepping out This spring the Metrodome throngs have thrilled to Hunter's .400 hitting and the Twins' run to the top of the AL Central.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)