Minnesota general manager Terry Ryan was genuinely worried that Torii Hunter might leave the Twins to play football after struggling early in his career.
“I didn’t know if we would be able to hang with it, because he struggled badly in the minor leagues, and I thought we were gonna lose him to football. And that really concerned me,” he said.
“That was my biggest worry about Torii Hunter, because he did not have a lot of success early in his career at all. And I swore I thought maybe he would go to football, and I didn’t want that at all.”
In 2000, at age 24, Hunter had one full season of baseball under his belt and owned a .254/.309/.377 line (73 OPS+) up to that point. He would be sent down to Triple-A that year, hit .368/.403/.727 and, according to Ryan, the rest was history.
“He always had that smile, and he always had the charisma, and he always had that energy.”
“He’s one of those guys that when it clicked, it went,” he said.
“Geez he had some kind of second half up there in Salt Lake (then the team’s Triple-A affiliate), and he forced himself back here, and that was the last time he ever went back. He always had that smile, and he always had the charisma, and he always had that energy.”
Hunter said in his Twins Hall of Fame acceptance speech that former manager Ron Gardenhire would give him a hard time about his inability to hit a slider when he was younger.
“The slider gave him a lot of problems in the low minors. And people knew it, so he kept seeing them,” said Ryan.
“He could hit a fastball. He always had the frame and all that stuff. And he always made those plays, and he could really throw. He had a very, very strong arm too.”
Hunter’s struggles early in his career have come up often when other players, like former Twin Aaron Hicks and current center fielder Byron Buxton have issues at the plate.
Hicks never realized his potential in Minnesota, although he was coming along a bit before being dealt to the New York Yankees in the offseason, and Buxton owns a .209/.252/.344 line as of Saturday despite owning a .357/.415/.585 line in Triple-A.
He also is strong enough defensively that it offsets some of his offensive deficiencies.
“He’s just like we were talking about yesterday with Sano, there’s some things that he can certainly improve upon,” said Ryan.
“But if you’re looking for a guy … he’s 22. He’s gonna make some mistakes, just like Torii did back in the day. But he’s got that ceiling that he can do about everything defensively that you’d ever want to see a center fielder do.”
His defense is far from a complete product, however, says Ryan, even with his superhuman speed and cannon arm.
“He’s not gonna be a polished product by any stretch yet. There are gonna be some routes, and there are gonna be some jumps, and there’s gonna be some reads and there’s gonna be some missed throws,” he said.
“No one’s ever said that he’s polished to the point where he’s a product up here that, he needs some time, and he’ll be fine. He has all the attributes of being a pure center fielder, as much as any player we’ve ever had.”
The one thing he shares in common with Hunter, though, is that he was always a center fielder. Kirby Puckett, for example, played in the corner while attending Triton Junior College in the Chicago suburbs.
“Torii Hunter was always a center fielder, and that was … from the first day he signed, that’s the one thing you could hang on — man this guy can really play center field. And he did, his whole career,” he said.
“And Buxton’s got a little bit of that. He’s certainly got that reputation. We’ve all see in on video, that thing he made down there in Cedar Rapids about four years ago is still legendary. Those are things that he can do that most can’t.”
There is a large contingent of fans that would like to see Hunter return to the organization in an official capacity. Ryan, for his part, would like to see it happen too.
“That’s more up to him. He’s so involved with his sons, but whenever he decides the time’s right, he and I, we’ll visit,” he said, referring to Hunter’s three sons: Torii Jr., a football and baseball player at Notre Dame, Monshadrick “Money” Hunter, who plays football at Arkansas State, and Darius McClinton-Hunter.
“I don’t think that’s fair (to badger him). I start badgering him, I’m gonna get a call from his wife, that’s what’s gonna happen. I don’t want to mess with that,” he said.
“Whenever he’s ready, he’ll let us know.”