Angels' Hunter embraces leadership role
On and off field, veteran center fielder has stepped up and taken on a prominent role
NEW YORK -- Torii Hunter is no stranger to Friday Night Lights. As a safety for the Pine Bluff (Ark.) High School football team in the early 1990s, he took pride in his ability to lay out opposing wide receivers. He was about as subtle as a hailstorm.
"I used to call myself 'the Sandman,' because I put a lot of people to sleep,'' Hunter said Thursday. "A guy is sitting there hurt, and you're jumping up and down happy. That's the way I was, and I kind of bring it into baseball. Not just one night. It's been that way my whole career.''
The Los Angeles Angels have seen Hunter summon his inner gladiator twice in recent weeks. The first occasion came after a dispiriting loss at Fenway Park in mid-September.
You might recall that game: The Angels felt wronged by a couple of disadvantageous calls on borderline non-swings by Boston's Nick Green in the ninth inning. Los Angeles closer Brian Fuentes failed to seal the deal, and the winning run scored when left fielder Juan Rivera made a half-hearted attempt at catching a bloop hit by Red Sox shortstop Alex Gonzalez.
As the Angels lamented their fate after the game, Hunter stood at his locker and challenged his teammates to show some fortitude. Actually, he mentioned a certain part of the male anatomy that's typically identified with fortitude.
"He wasn't going to allow anyone to be intimidated and not play the way they were capable of playing,'' said Angels general manager Tony Reagins. "He called out some people and said some things that needed to be said. And you've seen the results. Sometimes you have to give tough love.''
And sometimes actions speak louder than words. With the Angels hoping to get the jump on Boston in the Division Series, Hunter set the tone in Game 1. He hit a three-run homer off Jon Lester to give Los Angeles a 3-0 lead, then flung his helmet against the dugout floor with such fervor that it ricocheted to near shoulder height.
"I'm just a guy with a lot of adrenaline,'' Hunter said. "I was in my dugout, so I wasn't showing up anybody. I was just pumped up.''
So here's where things stand: Having dispensed with Boston, the Angels will begin the 2009 American League Championship Series before a packed house Friday night at Yankee Stadium. The wind chill factor will be in the upper 20s, precipitation could be abundant and the Angels won't be the least bit fazed by the Yankees' aura.
That sense of confidence is based in part on recent history. The Angels have a 33-20 regular-season record against the Yankees going back to 2003, and they rallied from four-run deficits twice to beat New York this season.
Even if the Angels were tempted to buy into the Yankees' mystique and the advantage of their gargantuan payroll, their center fielder wouldn't allow it.
Two years into a five-year, $90 million contract, Hunter is walking the walk. He established career highs for batting average (.299) and OPS (.874), and hit 22 homers and drove in 90 runs despite missing five weeks with a groin injury that he suffered running into a wall at Dodger Stadium in pursuit of a Matt Kemp fly ball in May.
Just as important, Hunter is flashing the energy and exuberance that helped draw the Angels to him in the first place. He's the media go-to guy on a team with its fair share of quiet, soft-spoken players. And he has more fun playing baseball than is permissible under the collective bargaining agreement.
Torii is the guy who can go over to anybody in the clubhouse and say, 'Hey, turn the page, man. You're going to do better,' or, 'We can do better. We'll get this thing done. Let's keep going.'” -- Angels manager Mike Scioscia
"He definitely gets us going,'' said second baseman Howie Kendrick. "We have two sides in this clubhouse. Torii is really fiery, and then you have a guy like [Bobby] Abreu who is just calm and collected. They both have fun, but in different manners. As a young player, you can feed off either guy.''
Now that Sean Casey has retired and Jim Thome is nearing the end of his career, Hunter is generally regarded as baseball's pre-eminent nice guy. He's a one-man charity machine, and he recently joined an illustrious list of players to win the Branch Rickey Award for community service.
He also continues to evolve as a player, adding bits and pieces to the foundation he established with the Minnesota Twins.
The Abreu influence has been cited ad nauseam for the Angels' offensive improvement this season, and it's hard to dispute. After ranking 18th in the majors in on-base percentage in 2008, the Angels were third among the 30 MLB clubs this season. They've gone from 25th to 17th in walks.
Hunter might be the biggest beneficiary of Abreu's presence in the lineup. According to FanGraphs, Hunter swung at 26.9 percent of pitches outside the strike zone this season -- his lowest rate since 2005 -- and 46.1 percent of pitches overall. That's about five percent below his career average. Hunter's .366 OBP was easily the best of his career.
"You don't want to go up there and swing at the first pitch after Bobby has a seven-pitch at-bat,'' Hunter said. 'I'm like, 'I'm about to have me one of those Bobby Abreu at-bats.' It trickles down. There's a domino effect.''
Precisely because Hunter struggled to embrace the nuances of the game as a young player in Minnesota, he's been a natural mentor to several Angels teammates. When the Angels sent Kendrick to Triple-A Salt Lake in June for a refresher course, Hunter was on the phone with him daily to offer encouragement and positive reinforcement. Kendrick was hitting .231 at the time of his demotion, and is hitting .332 since his return in July.
"Torii is the guy who can go over to anybody in the clubhouse and say, 'Hey, turn the page, man. You're going to do better,' or, 'We can do better. We'll get this thing done. Let's keep going,''' said Angels manager Mike Scioscia.
"I think if you're blessed to have one guy in your clubhouse that can do that, you have strong leadership on your club. We're fortunate that we have a number of guys that can do that. But Torii is leading the charge.''
There's an intriguing twist to this Yankees matchup. Hunter lobbied CC Sabathia to sign with the Angels last winter and made a strong pitch to Mark Teixeira to stay in Anaheim, but his charisma wasn't enough to dissuade the two free agents from accepting the $341 million combined the Yankees threw in their direction.
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On Thursday, Teixeira recalled his final conversation with Hunter in the offseason. "I said, 'Good luck. I hope I see you in the ALCS,''' Teixeira said. "We got our wish.''
The Yankees might want to be careful what they wish for. Hunter is a feeble 2-for-23 (.087) career against Game 2 starter A.J. Burnett. But he fares better against opening-game starter Sabathia (.294 with three homers in 68 at-bats) and Game 3 pitcher Andy Pettitte (.278 with two homers in 36 at-bats).
In two previous postseason appearances against the Yankees -- with Minnesota in 2003 and 2004 -- Hunter banged out 12 hits in 31 at-bats. Not bad for a kid with stars in his eyes.
"We had no frickin' chance,'' Hunter said of the Twins. "We made minimum wage. We tried our best and played good baseball, but all those home runs and doubles and great pitching beat us.''
Hunter is on a different team now, at a new phase of his career, and there's more than enough intensity to offset the autumn chill. The Yankees have their resident Sandman in closer Mariano Rivera, and the Angels have theirs in Hunter. Over the next 10 days, we'll find out which guy sleeps more soundly.