He's the leader in the clubhouse

Angels centerfielder Torii Hunter has become the player everyone expects to lead the Angels now that John Lackey is gone. Greg M. Cooper/US Presswire

TEMPE, Ariz. -- When the Angels were still in the dark early days of 2009, when the death of teammate Nick Adenhart still felt heavy on everyone's shoulders, former General Manager Bill Stoneman wandered through the clubhouse.

He spotted Torii Hunter at his locker on the far wall. For one of the few times since he landed in Anaheim, Hunter wasn't wearing an ear-to-ear smile. It had been three weeks since Adenhart's car crash.

"He and [John] Lackey were the two who were leading guys in the clubhouse and getting us through this thing," Stoneman said. "I said, 'Man, the mood's still down. At some point, we've got to get energized down here.'"

It's telling that Stoneman, now a senior consultant, gravitated toward Hunter. Plenty of Angels had spent more time with Adenhart. Hunter and the rookie pitcher had only shared a clubhouse in spring training and for a few days during the season. Pitchers and position players often walk right past each other without so much as a hello.

Hunter is not your typical baseball player. He's a man with crossover appeal, one whom former Angel Chone Figgins once likened to Barack Obama.

Hunter burst into the Angels' spring-training clubhouse Monday morning wearing a smile and a tight black T-shirt. Within minutes of arriving, he had warmly greeted minor-leaguers he barely knew, relievers he had nothing in common with and a small corps of reporters who do nothing but place demands on his time.

There's a reason Hunter, now that Lackey is gone, is the one everyone expects to lead this team in 2010. And he accepts it with all the gravity of ... a comedian.

"I don't want to say a 'leader,' maybe a 'Shaolin monk,'" Hunter said.

A what?

"I watched a lot of karate movies on Sundays when I was little," Hunter said. "He's the older monk with the long eyebrows and the long mustache, the one who trains 'em and then they come back and try to kill you later on. These young guys, you train 'em and they come and try to get you out of the game after a while."

In his third season with the Angels, Hunter now feels at home. He's the team's highest-paid player, the heart and soul of the defense, a hitter who continues to improve and the man everyone seeks out for guidance.

Last spring, Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher asked Howie Kendrick to spend as much time as he could watching Hunter. It's no coincidence they had adjoining lockers all season. Hunter talked him through a mid-season demotion to Triple-A, then kept in touch about everything from finances to fatherhood throughout the offseason.

It's not all smiles and pats on the back, though. Kendrick said Hunter and Bobby Abreu, the other ranking veteran, will pull aside young players when they botch a play or forget the fundamentals. Most players would rather hear it from a teammate than a coach or manager. What separates Hunter is his influence throughout the team.

"Torii talks to everyone in the locker room, whether it's pitchers, catchers, infielders, outfielders," Kendrick said. "Those guys, they've done it. You've seen their success. Why wouldn't we look up to those guys?"

Of course, the Angels aren't paying him $18 million to give pep talks. At 34, he remains a perennial Gold Glove contender in center field. Before he got hurt in June, he was having a season worthy of MVP consideration, batting .305 with 17 home runs and 65 RBIs.

On May 25, he slammed hard into the Dodger Stadium wall taking an extra-base hit away from Matt Kemp. Less than a month later, he tried to rob the Giants' Bengie Molina, but missed. He hit the wall hard at AT&T Park. Hunter walked out of the clubhouse under the influence of pain killers that evening, his ribs wrapped in a compression sleeve.
He never looked the same again in 2009, bothered by a nagging pain in his groin. By November, doctors recommended surgery to repair a sports hernia.

This year, he is vowing to ease up before his body meets the padding. Then again, he has said that before.

"If I can avoid it, I'll probably avoid it. If I can't, I'm going to do what I have to do to get the ball," Hunter said. "I've been playing this way my whole life."

The surgeons left Hunter nothing but a scar to show for the arthroscopic surgery. He said he is "99.9" percent recovered three months later. He worked out this winter with several college football players preparing for the upcoming NFL Combine, including defensive backs Myron Lewis from Vanderbilt and Deon Beasley from Texas.
The athletes practiced sprints and cutbacks. Hunter even ran alongside the youngsters in the 40-yard dash.

"They always called me the old man who seems so young," Hunter said. "I kept up with those guys."

Yet another group Hunter can join so easily.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.