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Bounty Hunter

During his free moments on the road, Torii Hunter lies in his hotel bed and stares at the ceiling. It's always the same white color, the perfect canvas on which to imagine his future.

Sometimes he sees himself roaming center field for Texas, because the Rangers' ballpark is only an hour from his nearly 20,000-square-foot manor in a place called, appropriately enough, Prosper, Texas. Others it's Boston, because "I love David Ortiz," Hunter said, "and I'd play anywhere he is."

And then there's Minnesota, the place Hunter has spent his first nine seasons. He is putting up the biggest numbers of his career there this year, third in the American League with 40 RBIs, fourth with 11 home runs and a .607 slugging percentage, and 10th with eight stolen bases. He's a shoo-in for his seventh consecutive Gold Glove, a pillar in the Minneapolis community and the Twins' soul and spirit, a chakra come to life.

Yet as much as Hunter wants to stay with the Twins, reality startles him from those daydreams. Even among a very strong free-agent class this season – one loaded with center fielders Andruw Jones, Ichiro Suzuki, Mike Cameron, Aaron Rowand, Corey Patterson, Eric Byrnes and Milton Bradley – Hunter is considered an elite player despite turning 32 this July. He's making $12 million this year, and there's every reason to think he could get $15 million a year for five years. Which puts the Twins – whose owner, Carl Pohlad, the richest one in baseball, would not dare approve a payroll that ranks among the top half of teams – in a precarious position, with big money locked up in Joe Mauer and bigger money coming for Johan Santana, Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan.

"They can afford me," Hunter said. "It's all about if they want to. I'd love for them to. It's sad if they don't do it. If you own a team in the major leagues, what do you expect? I hate that this is happening. I don't want to be with anybody else. I'll still be playing the game of baseball wherever I am, which is what I love. But I'm comfortable here."

The man charged with putting together the Twins, general manager Terry Ryan, tries not to panic.

"We've had a way of keeping our own," Ryan said, and while he can point to long-term extensions for Mauer, Santana and Nathan, those bought out arbitration years at below-market terms.

The only free agent of significance who has stayed with Minnesota during the Twins' most recent run of success was Brad Radke, loyal for 12 years before retiring after last season.

Radke was the last of Hunter's old-breed brethren. The excellent Twins teams of this decade were forged by their commitment to that group of Hunter, A.J. Pierzynski, Doug Mientkiewicz, Jacque Jones, Cristian Guzman, Corey Koskie and others who, despite lagging in talent, always managed to win.

That Hunter found such success was shocking in and of itself. At 16, he toted a gun around his hometown of Pine Bluff, Ark., and impregnated a girl. His mom was a teacher an hour away, so her time was limited, and his dad was an addict whose grip on the wagon remains tenuous. And for all that talent packed into a 6-foot-2, 225-pound frame, Hunter was rawer than carpaccio.

"One of the beauties of Torii is that it didn't come easy to him," Ryan said. "He hasn't forgotten where he came from. The game is difficult. And he'll be the first to tell you, this is a tough racket. Everybody used to talk about Puckett. Now, everybody would relate Torii Hunter to our organization. And that's a pretty high compliment for him and us.

"With young players, all we have to do is point to him and say, 'Look at how he does everything.' "

The Twins don't even have to say it. Players gravitate toward Hunter. He reaches out to them, too, particularly the small number of African-Americans who join the major leagues every year.

Hunter feels as though it's his duty to warn them about the dangers of sudden fame and money and opportunity and privilege, an intoxicating cocktail that ruins some careers on the front end and changes life on the back end.

"Whenever you go back to where you're from, it's always the same," Hunter said. "They say you change, but you don't change. People change. They look at you different. They come to you with business proposals instead of saying, 'Hey, Torii, how you doing, man?' "

Soon enough, Hunter's name will be inextricably linked with huge sums of money. He doesn't expect to strike a deal with the Twins during the season, though he said he'd love to hear a new proposal.

Certainly he's making a good case.

Ultimately, though, teams strive for pragmatism ahead of emotion, which renders players like Brad Radke so rare. The game's inequities and the players association's efforts to maintain a bull market present a sad reality in which an overriding question is: Who can afford to stay with the same team?

"There's no such thing as a discount," Hunter said. "I can make it easier. I won't say discount, but making it easier for the Twins is reasonable.

"You know what the price is. Come to it."