Hot-hitting Torii Hunter returns to warm Anaheim reception as key cog in potent Tigers lineup

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. – The inconvenient part of Friday night's 8-1 Angels win over Detroit was that Los Angeles didn't win for the past three years with Torii Hunter in their lineup, in their outfield, or in their hearts.

In fact, in spite of swollen expectations and a brand new superstar, the Angels with Hunter suffered a perfectly miserable, eight-win last April that all but snuffed their season before the marine layer could burn off. It wasn’t his fault, of course. He hit.

Anyway, there’s an honesty to Hunter, a realness, that draws people to him. Teammates linger at his locker. In his rookie season, Mike Trout basically lashed himself to Hunter’s belt. Fans get a smile and a “How ya doin’?” Even strangers get a wave, a wink, something that says, hey, we’re all good here.

So it’s an event when Hunter comes home, even when it’s not home anymore. He has been kind enough to stay in touch. Every night when they put the American League batting leaders on the scoreboard, there he is, staying in touch. On Friday evening, as Angel Stadium settled in, looming over the left-field bleachers:

T Hunter DET .413

Right on top, where he couldn’t be missed.

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At 37, going on 38, Hunter has found new life, a new lineup, in Detroit. He’s come out swinging with the same smart, short stroke he adopted last season and is sure to put another thousand or so plate appearances on the end of his career.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, “he hit about the third-longest home run of the season so far.”

Hunter has had the fortune of aging in the two-hole, last season in front of Albert Pujols and behind Trout, this season in front of Miguel Cabrera and behind Austin Jackson. He’s been as good to the lineup spot as it’s been to him; batting second, basically since last June, he’s hitting .353.

That’s what walked back into Angel Stadium on Friday night, with the home team dying for wins, the new right fielder hitting .200, chatter about changes on the coaching staff floating nearby, nobody sure if there’ll be enough pitching even when – or if – the bats come around.

[Related: Torii Hunter says it's good to be back home]

Actually, first it walked into Javier’s Cantina and Grill on Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach on Thursday night. That’s where Hunter bumped into Angels owner Arte Moreno, who’d apparently told Hunter the club lacked the funds to have him back. A month after Hunter signed with the Tigers for $26 million over two years, Moreno was attending a press conference celebrating the signing of Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125-million contract. Hunter, who badly wished to remain in Anaheim, tweeted, “I was told money was tight but I guess Arte had money hidden under a mattress. Business is business but don’t lie.”

According to Hunter, four months later the two had a nice chat.

“Arte’s cool, man,” he said. “Everything was good. There was no animosity like people think.”

Of the tweet, he said, “I was trying to crack a joke. It went bad.”

Well, maybe everybody’s better for it anyway. Moreno got his superstar with some prime seasons left. The Tigers got a guy hitting better than .400 with plenty left in that bat, in those legs. Regardless, what’s done is done.

Hunter strolled into the ballpark through the right-field gate Friday afternoon and was met immediately by Pujols’ son, A.J., who was shagging for early batting practice. Hunter laughed and put a bear hug on the 12-year-old, until A.J.’s feet were fluttering a foot above the grass.

When Hunter came to the plate in the first inning, he was greeted with a standing ovation. He lifted his helmet to the folks here. Then, when he took right field, the people in the bleachers met him with more applause, more love, a sign that read, “Thank U Torii.” He raised his cap, gestured to them, turned and did the same toward those in the field boxes along the line, then tapped his heart.

He’d been part of some disappointment here over the past five years. But he’d played well. More, he’d always played like he cared. Like he gave a crap. In a head-down, jog-to-the-dugout league, sometimes it’s enough to give a crap. Nobody, least of all fans, wants to feel like they’re going it alone. For those five years, Hunter celebrated wins with them, mourned losses with them and, in the end, didn’t want to go. He wanted to see it out. To win with them again.

That won’t happen.

“There’s still a lot of love here,” he said. “I can feel it.”

So Hunter gave them a smile and a “How ya doin’?” A wave to say, hey, we’re all good here. And then he went out to try and beat them, yet another detail in a night that was, all in all, inconvenient.

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