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What would you do about Torii?

6/26/2006

HOUSTON -- His name is Torii Hunter. His plight embodies the complicated universe of the Minnesota Twins.

He has spent his entire baseball life as a Twin. In a fairy-tale world, he would spend the rest of his baseball life as a Twin.

But while the Twins might be one of baseball's feel-good stories, they are not a fairy-tale story. So here is the bind Torii Hunter's ticking free-agent clock puts them in:

They have to keep him. They have to trade him.

They could make a case for either. They could make a case for neither.

But sooner or later, they will have to stop debating. Sooner or later, they will have to choose.

Keep him and try to catch the Tigers or White Sox (or both)? Or trade him and think about some other year, some other playoff charge in a season to be named later?

But even if they keep him, even if they don't trade him in the next month-and-a-half, their debate won't be over.

Within 10 days of the World Series, they have to make another decision:

Pick up Hunter's $12-million option for next year? Or buy him out for $2 million and let him slide down a free-agent escape hatch? Or there's Option No. 3 -- negotiate a new deal that locks him up until their new ballpark opens in (gulp) 2010?

So what will they do? What should they do? They have to keep him around. Except they can't possibly keep him around. What do they do? What would you do?

"He's the face of the organization," says Twins GM Terry Ryan. "He's a leader in the clubhouse. He's got longevity here. He's got great ability. He's got a charisma about him. We need him."

He's still just 30. He's the best center fielder alive (non-Andruw Jones Division). He has a smile wider than Lake Minnetonka. He's the last everyday player standing from the Twins' 2002-03-04 division winners. He's a link from one generation of Twins to the next generation -- the Joe Mauer/Justin Morneau/Francisco Liriano generation.

"So if I were a betting man," says Torii Hunter, "I'd bet I might be here."

But in truth, he says, "I promise you -- I really don't know."

Even as he predicts he'll stay, he doesn't sound as if he believes his own prediction. Asked if he's betting he'll be staying because the Twins will pick up his option, or staying because the Twins will decide to put their new-ballpark dollars to work and sign him long-term, Hunter sounds as confused as the teams that wouldn't mind trading for him.

"I hope it's with a long-term deal, (because) I can't see it with the option," he says. "If they felt they had to go with the option, then I would be out of here July 31."

So his brain tells him that the Twins want no part of that $12-million price tag for one last see-ya-later season. Either they want him, or they don't. Either they'll extend him before the deadline, or they'll wave goodbye. That's what he's thinking.

But there "hasn't even been a hint" that they'll try to extend him before July 31, he says. So there's a voice in his head telling him that means he's gone. But the voice in the general manager's office seems to be telling us otherwise.

"I'm still of the mind-set that we've got a chance to get back in this thing," says Ryan. "There's a lot of summer left. We're playing well. I'd like all our players to believe we can get this done. Everybody wants me to talk about July. I say: Let's worry about June, and let July take care of itself. That's where I'm at."

But "worry" wouldn't be a word that describes the Twins these days. After a gruesome start, June has been their month.

Through Thursday, the Twins had won nine of their last 10 games and 11 of 13. They have the AL batting leader (Mauer) in the middle of their order. They have a fast-emerging left-handed masher at first base (Morneau) who has whomped eight home runs this month.

They have the most unhittable 1-2 combo atop their rotation of any team in baseball (Johan Santana and Liriano), even if no one outside the 612 area code has seemed to notice. They have Brad Radke and Carlos Silva finally finding their rhythm in the middle of that rotation. So they have a lot of things going for them all of a sudden.

With the pitching they can run out there, it isn't out of the question they can have a second half as good as the Tigers' first half. So even though the Twins are 11 games out in the division and 10½ out in the wild-card race, they can still be dangerous, assuming those teams ahead of them decide to mix in a few losses every once in a while.

If what these Twins have been for the last two weeks is what they're going to be for the next few months, then there is no doubt where Torii Hunter will be employed once the trading deadline passes. He'll be a Twin. Period.

"That's what I'm saying," Hunter says. "I can't see it, that they're going to trade me. I know we're 10 games out, but I think back to 2001. We were like 10 games ahead of Cleveland, and they came back and beat us. …So I've seen it happen."

But he has seen other things happen, too. He has seen all those teammates he grew up with in the big leagues head down an exit ramp, one by one. Jacque Jones. David Ortiz. Corey Koskie. A.J. Pierzynski. Doug Mientkiewicz. All gone. Every one of them. Everybody but him and Radke.

So while Hunter always says all the right things in public, his baseball friends say he feels out of place now. Imagine Mick Jagger trying to hang with Outkast 24/7. Torii Hunter feels that generation gap. He misses his buddies. He wonders why they're gone. He wonders if he'll be next.

But it was economic reality -- the Twins' pre-ballpark economic reality -- that pushed all those other guys into the ejection seat. It sure wasn't because the Twins enjoy change more than anyone else.

"We have some new faces here, but I still believe in continuity," Ryan says. "We need stability. And we've always valued that -- with the manager, with the coaches, with the front office, with the players. … Look at Radke. He's been here longer than Torii. It's been tough for those guys because they lived through the tough times in the '90s. They went through contraction (or a near-contraction experience, anyhow). Now we've got 21 or 22 new faces here. But Radke and Torii are different. They're the two guys who have got a lot of history here."

Radke and Hunter are in different places in their careers, though. Radke had chances to leave. He always came back. But now it's Hunter's turn. Now it's his free agency looming. So it isn't just the Twins who have decisions to make. It's Hunter, too.

There's that new ballpark coming now. And after eight seasons in the Metrodome, after eight seasons of feeling that fake grass below him chomp away at his knee joints, Hunter thinks how cool it would be to play on actual blades of actual grass, beneath authentic sunlight -- and theoretically still be doing that in Minnesota.

"I think I deserve that one," he laughs. "Of course, a lot of guys deserve it. But man, I've been playing hard on that old (Astro)Turf, and on this new (AstroPlay) turf. So hopefully, I can get on that good grass … and play in the new stadium, man. After all those years in the Metrodome, I want to see it."

But in reality, that new stadium only will complicate his life, and all their lives. It isn't opening next year. It isn't opening in 2008. It isn't even supposed to open in 2009. We're talking 2010.

So when the general manager hears people talk about all the new revenue streams it's supposed to bring him, he finds that more amusing than any Adam Sandler flick.

"That's so far down the road, we'll be paralyzed if all we do is talk about the new stadium and all the great things it's supposed to bring," Ryan says. "How about between now and then?…I'm worrying about 2006. I don't think about 2010."

But Torii Hunter thinks about 2010. He'll turn 35 that summer. So his next contract is his most important contract. How can it not be? It's his one chance to control his fate while he's still in his Gold Glove prime. He has more than just money at stake.

Even though he's hitting only .262, even though his .414 slugging percentage would be his lowest over a full season in six years, even though he has been dropped to sixth in this order, any team in need of outfielders that would be overjoyed to drop him into its mix. He knows it. His team knows it.

They both know what kind of money is out there for him. They both know what kind of prospects the Twins could get for him if it ever comes to that.

But he's also the ultimate Twin. Their politicians just dropped a stadium deal on their horizon. Can they possibly let him leave? Can he even imagine leaving?

"I don't know, man," says Hunter. "I've been here 14 years. That's all I know, is Minnesota Twins baseball…I come out. I work hard. I've never been in trouble, on or off the field. I just feel like maybe they'll keep me around.

"But at the same time, it's a business. It's not about if you like me or they like me. I've seen a lot of people go. They like you, but they had to do it. So if they can get two or three prospects for me, superprospects or whatever it may be, if I were the general manager, I'd probably do that."

He's not the general manager, though. He doesn't even play one on TV. So it won't be his call. Heck, it might not even be the GM's call. When we're talking about the money Hunter might be worth, that's a number for Carl Pohlad to digest -- not Terry Ryan.

So what should they do? What would you do?

Their future looks just fine. But this is a decision the Twins need to make now, in the present. They need to weigh it all -- present versus future, youth versus experience, change versus stability, pre-ballpark Twins economics versus post-ballpark Twins economics.

That's a balancing act for Cirque du Soleil, not for baseball people.

Now try to envision all those disgruntled Twins fans if Hunter -- the official face of the franchise -- ever goes where Jones and Koskie and Big Papi went before. How much more of this can they take? How much more of this do they deserve?

But even Hunter knows he isn't irreplaceable. He has seen too much. He has seen what a fleeting concept "irreplaceability" can be.

"If I leave, man, somebody else will come around," he says. "If I leave, yeah, they'll miss me -- for two or three weeks. Then somebody else will take over. I've seen it happen. You've seen it happen. They love you. Then it's time to go.

"They'll get over it if I get traded. As long as I get to play this great game of baseball, it doesn't matter who I play it with. I just love baseball. That ain't a politically correct answer. That's a real answer. I love baseball. Really."

So that sums it up. Or does it? He'd love to stay. He'd survive if he goes. He just wants to play baseball. His arrows point in every direction on the compass.

Which means he's exactly like the men who run his team. They have to keep him. They'd love to keep him. They can't possibly keep him. They can't possibly think about not keeping him.

They can talk themselves into just about anything. They can talk themselves out of just about anything.

So this is one of those crazy modern baseball stories. It could veer left. It could veer right. It could never veer anywhere.

And in the meantime, the Twins keep playing baseball, and winning baseball games. And the face of their franchise keeps on smiling and gobbling up every fly ball that comes down anywhere south of Manitoba.

He doesn't know where this is leading. They don't know where this is leading. But those are the best kind of baseball stories around. They just don't all have happily-ever-after endings. Especially in Minnesota, where life has never been one big fairy tale.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.