Torii Hunter told the Star Tribune’s LaVelle Neal on Monday that he is going to retire after playing 17 seasons (plus cups of instant coffee in 1997 and 1998). Hunter finished his career this season for the Twins, his original organization and the team where he had been the center fielder from 1999 to 2007.
There was much made of Hunter’s leadership in his one-season return to the Twins. There was good reason for that: Torii introduced an extra competitive edge to the position players that helped to push the 2015 Twins to the plus side of .500 after the worst four-season stretch in franchise history.
There were a couple of times this summer when I saw Torii in the far corner of the home clubhouse at Target Field, serving as the media’s answer man for what had taken place in that day’s game, and found myself laughing slightly.
The reason was seeing Hunter as the elder of the Twins was always amazing, as I was in Baltimore on Aug. 22, 1997, when he came into the visitors clubhouse at Camden Yards to join the big-league club. He was wide-eyed and with the extra-large version of the smile that would become a trademark.
Hunter still was more a suspect than hot prospect that day, even though it was his fifth season since being the Twins’ No. 1 draft choice in 1993. The first of his 2,372 regular-season games in the big leagues consisted of pinch running for Terry Steinbach in the ninth inning of a 3-1 loss to the Orioles on the 22nd.
He stayed in Baltimore one more day and went back to the minors. He was with the Twins very briefly in 1998, and didn’t earn a real shot until 1999.
Just for giggles, here were the items (and publication dates) that I sent to the Star Tribune on Hunter’s first two days in the big leagues with the Twins.
AUG. 23, 1997:
BALTIMORE -- Torii Hunter hit a three-run home run to help the Twins' Class AA farm club - New Britain, Conn. - to a 13-0 victory over Binghamton, N.Y., in the first game of a doubleheader Thursday night. And the news got better for Hunter later that night.
The Rock Cats completed a doubleheader sweep, then manager Al Newman came to Hunter and said: "You're supposed to join the Twins in Baltimore on Friday."
Hunter said he thought Newman was playing a joke – an understandable reaction because his average after Thursday's doubleheader was .223, with seven home runs and 52 RBI.
The Twins needed a 25th player after outfielder Roberto Kelly was traded to Seattle on Wednesday night. (Note: The return for Kelly was pitchers Joe Mays and Jeromy Palki.)
The Twins plan to have Hunter with the team for two days, then send him back to New Britain when catcher Greg Myers comes off the disabled list Sunday.
"Torii was right here on the East Coast, and he's on the big-league roster," manager Tom Kelly said. "It didn't make any sense to fly Chris Latham in from Salt Lake City, then send him right back."
Hunter, 22, was thrilled, even if this will be only a 48-hour stay in the big leagues. "They say it's only for a couple of days, but you never know," he said.
AUG. 24, 1997:
BALTIMORE -- Catcher Greg Myers will come off the disabled list today. Manager Tom Kelly told rookie outfielder Torii Hunter after Saturday night's game that he will return today to Class AA New Britain.
"I have a 9:30 flight in the morning," Hunter said. "I suppose I'll be in the lineup for New Britain on Sunday. It was nice being in the big leagues, even if only for two days."
Hunter, the Twins' No. 1 draft choice from 1993, has excellent athletic ability, but he has done very little with the bat in five minor league seasons. He was batting .223 in New Britain.
Twins batting coach Terry Crowley, who watched Hunter in spring training, was asked for an opinion on what Hunter will have to do to become a competent hitter.
"I would say he's going to have to take the outside pitch to right field," Crowley said. "It's possible he could learn that. He has physical ability."