Did I said I retired? I said I was real tired.
— Torii Hunter, when asked if he will return to coach baseball sometime in the future
In many ways it seems like Torii Hunter slipped out the back door into retirement when nobody was looking. He didn’t have a farewell tour. He didn’t come out in the final game of the Minnesota Twins season in order to be honored individually by the fans. And he announced his retirement, unintentionally, in close proximity to the death of beloved Minnesota Timberwolves head coach and president of basketball operations Flip Saunders, as well as the medically-forced retirement of University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill.
His departure was ironic only because Hunter’s magnetic personality always drew a crowd. His genuine care for others built friendships for life. As a result, he always seemed to be in the spotlight. Like any first round pick, people were excited to see him when he first came up. They rued the day the Twins organization let him go in 2007 after leading the team to back-to-back-to-back division titles while facing contraction from 2002-04. And they celebrated his return after stints with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Detroit Tigers.
Hunter couldn’t provide an answer for what he would have done if he didn’t become a baseball player — “All I know is baseball,” he said — but while he is retiring from the game, he is unlikely to stay out of the public eye for very long. He could become a broadcaster or a coach or a member of upper management. The Twins wisely have offered an open invitation for him to return to the organization after he takes some time to be with his wife, Katrina, and his three sons.
And for as much as Hunter seemed to slip away instantly after 19 years in the major leagues, his impact will be felt for a long time. He took a risk, likely uncalculated, by referencing scripture early in his retirement speech. In today’s world, religion is often associated with bigotry, and the only time Hunter’s local Q Score dropped was when it was revealed that he opposed gay marriage. It led to an ugly situation where he called a reporter a prick in his introductory press conference a year ago and opposed the views of many in relatively liberal Minneapolis.
Regardless of which side you fall on the political spectrum, or what you think of religion in general, it’s hard not to appreciate the sentiment behind the verse he chose to share with the people — family, teammates and media; all people he would consider friends — gathered at his retirement press conference. “As iron sharpens iron,” he quoted from Proverbs 27:17, “so one person sharpens another.”
Hunter was a great player on the field, but it is off of it is where he has made a lasting impact. He spent last year in a religious locker room, especially the young leaders who will be expected to step into more prominent leadership roles in his absence. Brian Dozier and Kyle Gibson, specifically, use religion to guide their lives. Without a doubt, even the less outwardly religious players benefitted from his presence.
It takes a special person to connect with teammates from all over both the nation and the world. It takes a special person to maintain a respectful relationship with the media, and Hunter pointed out in his departing press conference that even he and Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the man he called a prick a year ago, were friends now. It takes a special person to thank over 20 people by name in a retirement speech, offering a little quip and sometimes a longer anecdote about each one.
Every professional athlete, whether their career lasts six months or 19 years, is unique from an athletic perspective — and Hunter more so than many people he shared the diamond with — but it is truly special when a person can match his ability on the field with a killer, genuine personality off of it. The Twins were lucky to have him, never should have let him go and should do the most they can to make sure he returns to the organization when he’s ready to get back into baseball.
In the meantime, however, it’s best that both sides spend some time apart. As Cold Omahacontributor Brandon Warne pointed out in a recent podcast, it can be difficult for a player to coach a team immediately after playing. It takes time to transition, as current Twins manager and Hall of Fame player Paul Molitor, noted in Hunter’s retirement press conference, and it’s only healthy that Hunter will take the time he needs to make that change.
From the team’s perspective, it is now on the players not only to retain Hunter’s message, but to live out his mantra of iron sharpening iron. Should Hunter return to the team as a coach, a fitting role for a guy who was always a positive influence in the clubhouse, he should come back to dance parties and the veteran players mentoring the new guys. “We have guys in our clubhouse that are great leaders,” said Joe Mauer after Hunter’s speech, “I think we can all try to take it on.”
The only way to replace Hunter the player is to bring him back as a coach, but putting the team’s rising stars — Trevor Plouffe, Dozier, Gibson — in a position where they have to step up as leaders is important for the growth of the team. And as much as Hunter should be celebrated for being a major part of the youth movement that dragged the Twins out of the contraction talk and into national relevance, this youth movement faces a different challenge, namely resurrecting a franchise that self-destructed and needed to be resuscitated.
In Hunter’s first act, he took a team that had nothing to the playoffs. In his second, he helped a team with plenty of resources wake from its doldrums. His third act will probably be to bridge the gap between playoff team and contender as a coach of some sort. Until then there should be no talk of the past, only a focus on the future: one that is very different from what Hunter faced as a young player.
If Hunter wants to return, there will be a spot open for him. But more important than a title is his welcome when he returns, and nothing would be more welcoming than seeing a group of players focused on helping one another succeed through their words and actions. In the moment before he enters the clubhouse, Hunter should hear iron sharpening iron.