Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Hunter Hangs 'Em Up

Hunter is retiring after a nice final season with the Twins (MLive)
After a stellar and tremendously consistent 19-year career, Torii Hunter is calling it quits.

Hunter had returned to the Minnesota Twins--who drafted him out of high school and watched him develop into one of the best center fielders of his generation--on a one-year deal for 2015. While he didn't explicitly say so, it was assumed he intended to retire as a member of the Twins, whom he played for from 1997-2007. He was going to be 40 in July, and while he'd been productive the last couple years one get the sense that his career was winding down. Why else would he want to come home?

Especially since the Twins have been terrible the last few years. When guys get to be Hunter's age and haven't won a ring yet, they usually want to go where they'll have a chance to do so. A popular, respected player with some juice left in his bat like Hunter could have latched on almost anywhere, had he been willing to take a discount. In need of a bat and veteran leadership for its up-and-coming team, Minnesota paid him above market value to come back.

It seemed like a sentimental move more than anything else. Hunter had been replacement level in 2014 and figured to be worse in 2015. That's nobody's idea of a $10 million player. But if anyone could afford to give a former star one last victory lap, the Twins could. With so much young talent to break in, Minnesota wasn't ready to contend.

As it turned out, the team and Hunter were both much better than expected. The Twins surprised everyone by finishing second in the AL Central, pursuing a wild card berth until the season's final week. Hunter hit 22 home runs--his most in a season since 2011--and played 139 games.

It was a fitting farewell for Hunter, one of the best and most popular Twins of all-time. Drafted by Minnesota in 1993, he made the big club in 1997 alongside David Ortiz, who like Hunter kept hitting throughout his entire 30s.

Also like Ortiz, it took Hunter a few years to get going. He didn't break out until he was 25, by which point he was in his fifth season--but once he did he never looked back. He hit 27 home runs and won his first of nine straight Gold Gloves that year (2001), made his first All-Star team and finished sixth in the MVP vote the following year, and had his first 100 RBI season the year after that. Nicknamed "Spiderman" for his amazing catches, he was quietly one of the best players of the 2000s, racking up eight Gold Gloves and topping 20 homers eight times (11 in all).

By the end of the decade he was an Angel, having moved on after a big walk year in 2007. When Vladimir Guerrero departed he moved over to right, which no doubt extended his career. He'd shown signs of slowing down in his last season as an everyday center fielder, batting .262 with his worst slugging percentage in over a decade.

But before long LA's outfield became too crowded for him, with Mike Trout taking over in center and Josh Hamilton signing on. Hunter found a home in Detroit, where he had two near-identical offensive campaings in 2013 and 2014.

It was towards the end of his first year with the Tigers that he was involved in what may be the most memorable play of his career. It was Game 2 of the ALCS and Boston, and Detroit led 5-1 in the bottom of the eighth. The bases were loaded and David Ortiz, Hunter's old teammate, stood at the plate, facing fresh reliever (Joaquin Benoit) summoned to extinguish the flames.

Ortiz turned on Benoit's first pitch and belted it deep into the night. 37,000 cold, tired fans leapt from their seats as the ball rocketed towards the right field bullpen. Hunter raced back to the wall and leapt, his glove hand stretched as high as it could go. Hunter had robbed many a would-be home run before, and it looked like he might do so again. He timed his leap perfectly, but without time to set his feet  he slammed into the wall, then flipped over it as his momentum carried him out of play. The ball followed him into the bullpen, having just cleared his outstretched mitt.

The game was tied, and within a matter of hours, so was the series. The Red Sox went on to win in six, then proceeded to beat the Cardinals in the World Series. Had Hunter made the catch, Detroit would have won the game and probably the series. It could have been them celebrating after defeating St. Louis. And Hunter, of course, would have been the hero for robbing a would-be game-tying grand slam.

Instead, he retires with the best play of his career occurring in an All-Star Game. It was a superb play, to be sure, but I guarantee Hunter would trade it in a heartbeat for the ALCS grab, especially since he nearly killed himself trying to make it.

But not even that could slow him down. Nothing ever did.

Oh sure, he lost range over time as all mortals do. His defense inevitably slipped, forcing him over to right field and eventually DH. But even as he became a non-factor on the bases and a liability in the field, he remained a threat in the batter's box.

It's rare that centerfielders age as well as Hunter did. I think of Mickey Mantle, Dale Murphy, and Ken Griffey Jr., all of whom broke down in their 30s. Same goes for Andruw Jones, Vada Pinson, Fred Lynn, and Cesar Cedeno. Jim Edmonds couldn't stay healthy. All that running and crashing into walls usually catches up to you.

Not Hunter. He had pretty much the same season every year for 15 years. He'd bat around .280 with 20 homers, 20 steals, and 90 or so RBI. Like clockwork. There were a couple years where he got hurt--in 2005 he was limited to 98 games and in 2009 played only 119--but for the most part he was in the lineup everyday.

You know whose career Hunter's reminds me a lot of? Johnny Damon's. They were never really great, All-Star caliber players, let alone serious MVP candidates, but they were really good for a long time and held up surprisingly well. They played on some terrific teams and were usually in the postseason. They were pretty indestructible, too.

Hunter wasn't quite as good as Damon, but he had a better career than most people realize. His counting numbers are actually very similar to Jim Rice's. He surpassed 350 homers and fell just short of some other big round numbers like 2,500 hits, 500 doubles, 200 stolen bases, 1,400 RBI, and 1,300 runs. Not quite Hall of Fame numbers, but Hall of Very Good for sure.

Most impressively, Hunter went out on his own terms, not because of injury or as some washed up bum on a team he didn't care about. He got to retire as a healthy contributor for his original team after a year in which they almost made the postseason. It's not the perfect final chapter, but it's still a happy ending.

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