'Everybody loves Torii'
Torii Hunter might be spread a little thin, but he's a perfect All-Star ambassador
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- David Ortiz seemed to get more emotional the longer he talked about his longtime teammate.
Baseball fans might know Torii Hunter best for his leaping catches in center field, his wide smile and for some inflammatory comments he made to USA Today this spring. Ortiz read the comments, in which Hunter called dark-skinned Latin players "imposters," who don't make up for declining African-American participation in baseball. Ortiz said Hunter, who moved through the Minnesota Twins system with him, has always had a strong relationship with Latin players.
"Whoever knows Torii knows that Torii is one of the coolest guys out there, one of the most friendly persons in the game," Ortiz said of the Los Angeles Angels center fielder. "Everybody loves Torii."
Major League Baseball had a pretty good idea Hunter's personality would play well on a national stage months ago, when it named him a spokesman for this week's All-Star festivities. The role has meant a few extra appearances and TV and radio spots for Hunter, who is lapping it all up. It could be an important few days for him to patch up an image that took a shot with those comments, even if people who knew him never doubted his intent.
Hunter hasn't turned down many invitations this week, other than to the Home Run Derby. He had his three teenage sons with him Monday and they were going to be on the go for a while.
"You've got FanFest, a couple TV stations, talking to kids, autograph signings, kissing babies," Hunter said. "It's going to be a lot of fun. It's going to keep me busy for the next couple days."
Hunter then offered to take a couple dozen reporters standing around his podium Monday to dinner and beers.
"Whatever you need me to do," Hunter said.
There's a reason ex-Angel Chone Figgins took to calling Hunter "Obama" last year. He has a magnetic personality that pulls in outsiders rather than pushes them away, as many major-league players do in order to maintain their focus.
Hunter's willingness to go above and beyond had Angels manager Mike Scioscia concerned enough that he pulled his best healthy hitter aside near the end of the first half. Playing host at an All-Star week can be an exhausting experience. Roger Clemens did it in Houston in 2004 and gave up six runs in the first inning.
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"I said, 'Hey, enjoy it, but I want you to relax,' " Scioscia said. "But he feeds off the locker-room atmosphere, the way guys gravitate to him. This is going to be locker room personified. As much as he's going to try, he's going to be spending a lot of energy just talking to guys and having fun."
Tuesday will be Hunter's fourth time at an All-Star game, but -- assuming he plays -- only his third game action. He traveled to St. Louis last year, but had to sit out the game with a strained groin muscle that would keep him out until mid-August. That was a disappointment for Hunter, who grew up a few-hours' drive from St. Louis in Arkansas and looked up to Ozzie Smith and Vince Coleman. He said long ago that he would embrace whatever comes with this week's game, even if it robbed him of two crucial days of rest.
This week would have been a lot less fun for Hunter if he were strictly a spokesman. He's also a legitimate All-Star who got the nod from AL manager Joe Girardi by batting .298 with 15 home runs and 62 RBIs in the first half. Hunter had the best OPS (.929) and RBI total (62) of any AL center fielder.
His crowning All-Star moment so far was robbing Barry Bonds of a home run in 2002, but Hunter, 34, admits his best defensive days are behind him. This could be the season that snaps his nine-year hold on the Gold Glove, but the Angels would be adrift without his bat.
"My defensive skills might go down because I'm getting older, but offensively I'm better," Hunter said.