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World on a string

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

The most desirable player left in baseball's free-agent pool tried to put into context the enormity of the $275 million contract for his predecessor to that title, Alex Rodriguez.

"I'm at least half the player he is, right?" Torii Hunter said. "If he hits 50 (home runs), I'll hit 25. So if he's getting $275 million … "

Hunter laughed.

"Well, you know."

Yeah, yeah. We know Hunter won't be getting $137.5 million. Actually, with all the cash floating around baseball these days, we pretty much know. And yet it's neither the money nor the adulation that intrigues Hunter these days but the whole tortuous process of finding a new team. At 32, Hunter, a lifelong Minnesota Twin and their center fielder for the last nine seasons, is hitting free agency for the first time – and at the right time. He's coming off the best season of his career in which he drove in a career-best 107 runs, played a career-high 160 games, hit 28 home runs, stole 18 bases and won his seventh consecutive Gold Glove.

With perhaps a dozen teams hot for him, with so many options and choices, Hunter tries to map out the next five or six years of his life. He always gets stuck.

"The Dodgers are definitely near the top," Hunter told Yahoo! Sports from his Prosper, Texas, home. "With Joe Torre there, things have got to change. He's bringing his history with them. I'm telling you, they're going to start winning.

"Then I look at Kansas City. They have a plan. I think they're a year away. They might do it this year. What I heard from the Kansas City Royals was impressive."

On Hunter went, ping-ponging from team to team, situation to situation, wondering aloud where he would fit best and where best would fit him. He loved the pitch from Royals general manager Dayton Moore and their new manager, Trey Hillman, when they visited his home last week. And he dug how, in person, Chicago White Sox GM Kenny Williams called him the team's top off-season priority, someone they want to sign before free agency kicks into gear. And he appreciated Texas Rangers GM Jon Daniels and manager Ron Washington making the trip to Prosper, a Dallas suburb, to take their stab at keeping him close to home.

And then there's Los Angeles, where his big personality and bright smile would kill, and Milwaukee, where he could almost guarantee stepping into a playoff contender, and Washington, where he'd be a centerpiece for the new stadium. He wants to see all of these places, and all of them will want to see him, too.

"I've got to go there," Hunter said. "Make this like a recruiting trip. I'm gonna get a baseball and roll it on the grass, see if there are snakes. I'm a scientist on defense."

Hunter chuckled again, reveling in the absurdity of it. Deep down, he wishes free agency wasn't a necessity, that Minnesota owner Carl Pohlad was compelled to spend some of his $3 billion-or-so fortune on baseball and run the Twins as a hobby instead of a business.

Not so. Minnesota did offer a three-year, $45 million contract in August, and Hunter turned it down, knowing he'll get at least $15 million a year for five or six seasons. Had he agreed to the below-market deal, though, the Twins couldn't lock up Johan Santana or Joe Nathan, the best pitcher and among the top closers in the game, and free agents after this season. Nor could they keep first baseman Justin Morneau, the 2006 American League MVP who will receive massive arbitration raises for the next three years before hitting free agency.

"You've got to sign Morneau," Hunter said. "You've got to sign Johan. If not, trade him and get a lot of things for him. You've got guys there you can lock up. I wish I knew what was going to happen. In my heart, I'm still a Minnesota Twin. But at the same time, sometimes you have to move on and see what's out there.

"The process is tough. Because you're with an organization for 15 years, it's like home. My whole adulthood I was with the Minnesota Twins. Seventeen to 32. It might not be the end, but at the same time, it's hard to leave home. It's like when I left my mom's home at 17. When I was driving off, it was tough. It took me a while to recoup."

Not too long. When he finished bouncing around two-name minor-league cities – Fort Wayne to Fort Myers to New Britain to Salt Lake – Hunter was summoned to the Twin Cities for good in 2000, seven years after they drafted him in the first round out of Pine Bluff, Ark.

There they called Hunter "Kedar," his middle name, and watched him grow into a superb athlete. They tried to keep him away from the drugs that consumed his father, who still in recent years has struggled with addiction.

Now Hunter is poised to cash in, for at least $75 million, more likely $90 million and maybe even more than $100 million.

It's a clich, of course, to suggest it isn't about the money, and it's one to which Hunter falls prey. Though he halfway makes up for it by asking: "Is losing really worth an extra $10 million? I want to know: Does the team have good character? Do they have fun and crack jokes no matter what?

"I just don't want to be that guy walking through the lobby."

He's talking about the lobby at the Gaylord Opryland Resort, site of baseball's Winter Meetings on Dec. 3-6. It's custom for the top unsigned free agents to parade through with their agents, the alpha male extraordinaire, the peacock with his plumage on full display.

"If I am there," Hunter said, "I'll look fresh."

In the meantime, he waits. The contract offers are coming in to Hunter's agent, Larry Reynolds. Teams understand what they're getting: 25 home runs, about 100 RBIs, a paltry on-base percentage, dynamic fielding and one of the great clubhouse influences – for blacks, whites and Latinos, young and old – in the game.

Hunter still doesn't get them, though. Los Angeles could be about sunshine, Kansas City about losing, Washington about a big African-American population. They're all generalities, the kind on which he can't make his decision, not before he knows each better.

"I'm enjoying this. I am," Hunter said. "But I know what Minnesota means. They might have already said good-bye anyway. So I have a good idea of what I have to do."

Soon enough, he'll know for sure. And we'll know that he's at least a quarter the caliber of A-Rod.