Ever-present Hunter keeps Halos afloat

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Years ago, decades ago, even, Torii Hunter(notes) just started showing up.

He’d put a bat over his shoulder and hang a glove off of that, walk to the next game or maybe catch a ride, whatever it took.

He’d play hard once he got there. And he had these remarkable skills, so fast and athletic. And he loved the game so much that sometimes it seemed less like he found it than it found him, pulled him along, promised him happiness.

But generally, it was about showing up. Body clean, head clear and present; that was the whole plan.

So 16 years after he signs his first professional contract and a couple months from his 34th birthday, beyond the comfort of regular paychecks and above the grind of the grown-up stuff that can wear on a man, Hunter sits in a big league clubhouse and is reminded the game is still in the showing up. Just being there, body as ready as it can be, head up.

“Every day,” he says, “no matter if we have something going on or not, stuff on the field or off the field, I come out.”

Maybe that doesn’t sound like much. It’s not, I guess, except general managers typically spend more time talking players onto the field than off of it, and the fact is the Los Angeles Angels, over two months, have been absolute wrecks in body and spirit.

They’d not only appreciate the guy who shows up, who smiles when everybody needs it and hits the ball in the gap and goes over the wall to bring back an out, but they’d grab onto his pant leg and not let go.

In a season where nothing was where the Angels left it, where tragedy came early and injuries took their best players and slumps got most everybody else, it often seemed Hunter was the only man standing. And then he’d drive in the necessary run.

“I’d hate to see where we’d be without Torii,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “In terms of producing, it’s going to come and go for players. But at a time when we needed it the most, he’s been leading the charge.”

After starting in each of the Angels’ first 45 games, Hunter carried a .323 batting average into their 46th on Wednesday night against the Chicago White Sox. He’d hit 11 home runs and driven in 40 runs. He’d rank fourth in the American League in RBIs and sixth in OPS and seventh in extra-base hits, most of it batting cleanup in a lineup where, at best, one other hitter – Kendry Morales(notes) – was also meeting or exceeding the club’s expectations.

Through those two tremulous months, he is the best player on their team, and the most valuable player in their league. His production compares to Justin Morneau’s(notes) and Jason Bay’s(notes) and Evan Longoria’s(notes) and Carlos Pena’s(notes) and Miguel Cabrera’s.(notes) His steady perspective and unyielding leadership and available shoulder have kept the Angels upright, reasonably competitive and hopeful for the next four months, from end to end a game’s definition of value.

He drove in runs when Vladimir Guerrero(notes) blew a chest muscle. He hit home runs when Bobby Abreu(notes) had none. He pushed an offense when the starting rotation was down John Lackey(notes) and Ervin Santana(notes), and he ran into walls to salvage a few ticks of ERA for the worst bullpen in the league.

Yeah, it hurts. His ribs are sore and his leg aches and, he said, “There’s something tight on my back.”

Hunter laughed and offered, “I’ve got excuses if you want ‘em.”

But, he said, “I’m going to find a way to play with it.”

He doesn’t have much choice. None of them do. They’ve played and pitched themselves into a mediocre quarter of a season, meaning they’ll have to run down and then hold off the Texas Rangers, so different from last season, when they spent about an hour-and-a-half out of first place.

They’re still waiting on Guerrero and a half-dozen other guys, and they might never have the bullpen to carry them far into October anyway, but the fact they’re not playing their way back from 10 games out is mostly Hunter’s doing. He’s been that good. His timing has been that precise, on both sides of the ball. Most importantly, he’s shown up.

“He comes to play every day,” Chone Figgins(notes) said, “and that’s something better than sitting and talking about hitting or defense or anything. He just comes to play. He brings it every day. That’s what we’ve needed.”

He said their muscles and psyches are mid-summer fatigued, because so little has been easy. Losing Nick Adenhart(notes) rubbed them emotionally raw, and the baseball has been slow to come.

“Sometimes,” he said, “it really makes your team realize where you’re at. Are you going to take it and hang in there until everything comes around? People like Torii, they make you realize it’s going to be all right.”

He’s insisted on it, actually, holding them all up until their heads (and the DL) cleared.

“What Torii’s brought to us, particularly on the offensive end, it’s been vital for us keeping our heads above water,” Scioscia said. “You know, it’s the way he plays the game of baseball.”

He was hitless Wednesday night. The ball hardly found him in center field. And the Angels won a game. Abreu had a big hit, and so did Juan Rivera(notes). And Jered Weaver(notes) got them to the ninth, which Brian Fuentes(notes) survived again. Progress, maybe. See what happens? See what happens when everybody shows up?

“You can have excuses,” Hunter says. “But at the same time, you have to go play the game. You gotta come out every day and play ball, no matter what. I see what we’ve been through. I’m happy to carry the weight.”

What the heck. He’s going that way anyway.

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, May 28, 2009