ANAHEIM, Calif. – The signs – big ones, little ones, some with glitter and others with exclamation points – bob and sway now in the bleachers and box seats that horseshoe Torii Hunter in right field at Angel Stadium.
They plead with the club's owner, Arte Moreno, to have a heart, to bring Hunter back to them. They beg Hunter to stay.
He smiles. He waves.
"I'm honored," he says. "Really honored."
The people here adopted Torii Hunter going on five years ago, and in that time he's busted it to first base, stood out in front of losses and folded into wins. At 37, he happens to be having one of the best offensive seasons of his career. And that's fine. That's important. On Wednesday night, with the season hanging from a glove string, he tied a game with a hit in the seventh and won it with a hit in the ninth. He got hot in late July and has batted .356 with 47 RBI in 57 games since. But what makes him special, what the people sense about him, what they always have, is that he cares.
He likes the game like they do, laughs when they do, hurts when they do.
What they want is a three-run home run, and a do-over on April, maybe a quality start or two out of C.J. Wilson. They want Albert Pujols to be Pujols forever, and for Mike Trout to finish like he started and the Oakland A's to lose a few games soon.
The season on Gene Autry Way has been strange enough. The big free-agent signings, the al fresco press conferences, they've made for a single day in first place in the AL West. That was April 6. The rest has been a moving target, a blur of good ball and bad ball and manager hunts.
The Angels have won five in a row and 24 games of 33, and still they live under the thick black line of the wild card standings. They've been just competent enough to contend, then just lousy enough to have to hope. And, so, well, here they are, desperate to win and maybe just a little fearful it's too late.
So, as the club inched toward Thursday afternoon's game against the Seattle Mariners, its last at home in the regular season, the signs pop up on the right side of the stadium for Hunter. His $90 million contract runs out when the season does, in six days or six weeks, but soon.
Hunter believes he has two seasons, maybe three, left in him. The Angels don't necessarily disagree. They also have $42 million over the next two seasons wrapped up in Vernon Wells, Peter Bourjos wasting away on the bench, Mark Trumbo to consider, the big money on Pujols and Wilson still to come, a decision to make on Zack Greinke and more than $90 million already on the books for next season.
Still, there's something special about Torii Hunter, even beyond the consistent production at the plate, the glove in the outfield, the willingness to tromp off to right field when younger players arrived, the aye-aye sir when Mike Scioscia put him in the two-hole to save a staggering offense.
He's helped to raise Mike Trout, for one. He's loitered in front of his locker after every loss and publicly worn every disappointment, for another. He's accountable. He's dignified. He's composed. He has a damned good time doing it. The Angels are fortunate to have that, and even more fortunate that he is one of their best players, with more to come, if they'll have him.
As usual one recent afternoon, Hunter is in his chair, the one near the hallway that leads to the showers. A television on the wall is twisted toward him so he can watch the East Coast games. Howie Kendrick is to his left, Trout just beyond Kendrick. There's a tiny golden Notre Dame helmet at his feet. His son will play wide receiver for the Fighting Irish next fall.
"I'm a Notre Dame dad," he says, like it's the craziest thing he's ever heard.
His boy is going to room with David Robinson's son, and Torii thinks he'll get an apartment in South Bend, so football weekends will be more comfortable for the family.
He looks up at those signs and he's touched that someone would care that much, that he's gotten this far – his kids are growing up, his career is closer to ending than beginning, he's thirty-stinkin'-seven – and it's all gone, you know, pretty well. He looks out at Derek Jeter and sees a guy who knows what he does, that a man – a ballplayer – can be bigger than the sum of his OPS, even when his OPS is more than presentable.
"You can't really see what's in somebody's heart or in their mind or in their instincts," he says.
I wonder what it's like to come to the end of a contract, to possibly the end of a time and a place that became home. He says he's optimistic there's room for him here. Maybe there's not, but that's a thought for tomorrow, because he's still running that race.
"No matter when that day comes when I finish the race, I promise you I'm going to be so thankful and grateful to play this game," he says. "I'll be happy to have gotten so many years in the big leagues. That my grandkids will be able to say their granddad played in the major leagues and was no slouch. And that he finished the race, you know?"
I'm generally not one to tell Arte Moreno how to spend his money. Last time I did, he stopped talking to me. That was almost two years ago. But this seems simple.
Moreno on Thursday told Roger Lodge of radio station KLAA, "I tell you what, if we don't figure out a way to re-sign him, we're going to get hung, aren't we?"
All signs seem to point that way, yes.
So, Arte, while you're budgeting that money for arms and bats, don't forget to set a little aside for heart.
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