Usually when a prominent athlete retires, you search your memory for moments.
When Torii Hunter announced his retirement Monday, I thought of conversations.
That’s why Hunter’s retirement saddens me in a way that almost nobody else’s has.
Being a sportswriter sounds like fun, but it really depends on the athletes you cover. They are on their turf, usually surrounded by flaks, and most of them on most days would rather not have to do interviews, or at least not say anything meaningful.
Sportswriters crave access. Anybody can watch a game from a press box or stand in a scrum in a locker room. What you really want when you do this job is the ability to have an honest conversation that unearths insight.
Entering a locker room is often an awkward dance to an endless dirge of clichés. Every once in a while, you learn or hear something that transcends the numbing news conferences and checklist of common sports lies. Every once in a while, you have a conversation with an athlete that yields a new anecdote.
When Hunter was in the Twins clubhouse, that day was pretty much every day.
In 30 years of covering sports, Hunter became my favorite athlete. Not so much because he evolved into an All-Star and a Gold Glove winner, but because he so adeptly narrated his own life story, of a kid from “the ‘hood’ ” in Arkansas to center stage and center field.
In terms of the way he treated people at the ballpark, he was the same guy in his last season in the big leagues as he was when I met him on his first day in Twins spring training in 1994, only he had a lot more jokes.
It’s easy for an athlete to worry only about himself or herself, the bank account, appearances, the future.
To offer him the ultimate compliment, Hunter always got it. More than any other athlete I’ve covered, Hunter knew what it meant, and what it should mean, to be a star.
He worked out like a maniac during the winter.
He ran sprints before every game and ran out ground balls during them.
He signed thousands of autographs and posed for as many pictures, smiling like he was running for office even though he didn’t need any votes.
He did good works in the community and led by word and example in the clubhouse.
More than anything, he, more than anyone I’ve met in sports, understood that competing daily is a serious matter, but that the sporting life should be joyful.
For Hunter, success was a choice.
He was a talented high school athlete but a raw baseball player. He didn’t know what a slider was until he started playing in the minor leagues. It took him most of a decade to stick in the big leagues and another few years to become a star.
Blessed with a strong arm and an athletic frame, he turned himself into a student of the game and a mentor.
What other 40-year-old athlete who hadn’t played in an organization for eight years could return, immediately become a team leader, and throw wild dance parties after every victory? The list of stars who could pull that off is about as short as the list of stars who would think of it.
Hunter was glib and funny in front of cameras, but what I’ll miss the most was his passion for talking about the game and his life in one-on-one conversations, when he might veer into fatherhood or that time his teammates stuffed David Ortiz’s underwear with peanut butter. He loved talking about the latest hitting tip he had gotten or given, or how much winning a championship would mean to him.
If the Twins are right about their young outfielders, they should be able to replace Hunter as a player. When it comes to presence, let me send Mr. Hunter off with one last compliment:
With one last year with the Twins, he supplanted his mentor, Kirby Puckett, as the best sports personality in recent Minnesota sports history.