Hunter has emotional return
Center fielder discusses being back at the Metrodome
MINNEAPOLIS -- Torii Hunter's new teammates told him that he would get emotional coming back to Minnesota.They told him that returning to face the organization in which he spent all 15 years of his professional career might just make him cry. He just didn't quite believe them until the Angels' plane landed in the Twin Cities on Sunday afternoon. That's when the memories flooded back. The ones where Hunter got lost on his way to the airport -- an event that happened numerous times early in his career, he said -- and those trigged by the various neighborhoods and streets he recognized from the plane. "It was tough," Hunter said during a press conference to mark his return on Sunday. "I didn't think it was going to hit me like it did." For Hunter, it was reality sinking in that when he runs into center field at the Metrodome for Opening Day on Monday, he will be donning an Angels uniform rather than the Twins. That fact was cemented when Hunter signed a five-year, $90 million contract with the Angels as a free agent this past November. At the time, it seemed to be an incredible twist of fate that Hunter's new team was set by schedule makers to open the 2008 season at the Metrodome. So during a late afternoon workout for the Angels on Sunday, Hunter took the field at the Metrodome for the first time in his new uniform. He said he took a moment to look around in center field and reminisce, when he glanced down for a second. "I had on red, and I was like, 'Man, I can't believe I'm on another team,'" Hunter said. "Trust me, I'm human and it's hitting me right now that I'm with the Angels and not here with the Twins." Moving on That's not to say the center fielder isn't very excited about his new home. Hunter's trademark mile-wide grin appears every time he talks about his new Angels teammates and playing in the sunshine of Southern California. The excitement can be heard in his voice when he talks about playing for a team that he says mimics the Twins' style of play -- hard. Hunter has even bought a home near Los Angeles and found himself settling into the California lifestyle. But it's when he got to Minnesota on Sunday that Hunter said he felt "at home." "There is always going to be a part of me here," Hunter said. "This is where I grew up. This is what I know, where I learned how to play and grew as a baseball player. There's no way I can say, 'I don't love you guys anymore.' I love everyone here, man." A case of gone, but not forgotten Despite training in Arizona with his new team this spring -- thousands of miles away and three time zones behind the Twins' complex in Fort Myers, Fla. -- Hunter said his former team hasn't been far from his mind. He got on the Internet often and checked the stats of his former teammates, like Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer, to see how they were doing. The center fielder said he checked in from time to time as well, text messaging Morneau often and putting in numerous calls to new Twin and his offseason workout partner, Craig Monroe. Hunter said he'll catch up with old teammates and coaches this week, but he won't be visiting the Twins' clubhouse during the four-game series, choosing instead to chat on the field or in the hallway.
That means he won't see his old locker is now occupied by Cuddyer, who personally requested the spot. Hunter gave that move his stamp of approval."He's definitely the guy to have it," Hunter said. "He's a leader, a vocal guy and a spokesman. He's probably going to be the face of that franchise, because he speaks. So I think he's the guy for it. He's been around, he knows the organization in and out. He was drafted by these guys in 1997 ... he was born and bred as a Twin." It was a role that Hunter himself had occupied for nearly the past decade, that of a born-and-bred Twin. So trying to shake it now has been, at times, difficult. Hunter admitted Sunday that he's caught himself a few times using "we" in reference to the Twins. It's a habit that he hopes to break "by next year." "Fifteen years with one organization -- that's my family," Hunter said. "But I've got to try to break that habit. It's something I'm going to try to be working on." Time to say goodbye The Twins' three-year, $45 million offer fell well below the deal he signed with the Angels, and at least three other teams proposed five-year contracts to him, but Hunter said the decision to leave Minnesota was still a difficult one. It meant leaving the only organization he had ever known and saying goodbye to some of the people he was closest with, including manager Ron Gardenhire. The two first met when Hunter joined the organization at age 17, and they developed an even stronger bond once Gardenhire became the Twins' manager in 2002. There will be hugs and some catching up, but both Hunter and Gardenhire agreed that once both teams step on the field, it's game-face time for all. "I love him dearly," Gardenhire said. "And I hope he goes 0-for-16." Welcome back Although Hunter went through a range of emotions when he arrived in Minnesota on Sunday, he's set to experience more of a roller coaster over the next few days. The Twins will honor him with a video tribute before Monday's opener and he'll be presented his seventh consecutive Gold Gove Award on Tuesday. And of course, the most emotional of all moments for Hunter and Twins fans will likely come when he comes up for his first at-bat on Monday. All spring long, the Twins' players have discussed how they feel the crowd will react to seeing Hunter playing for the other team, and how they will, too. "It will be weird to us, and fans, to see him in that uniform. It won't look right," Morneau said. "But it will be fun to see him -- well, just as long as he doesn't rob me of any home runs." For Hunter, the moment of truly being welcomed home will come when he is greeted by the fans. His interaction with them will perhaps be his lasting legacy in Minnesota, as he was a longtime fan favorite due to his gregarious personality and down-to-earth appeal. It's why Hunter is both looking forward to the moment the fans greet him, yet still a tad apprehensive, hoping that it will be a gracious reception. "I don't know what to expect," Hunter said. "I guess I'm expecting a warm welcome -- I hope. It will be good to be seeing some of the familiar faces in the stands. Waldo, my guy in center field with the hard hat. He was a big fan. He was there every day, every game in the outfield in center field. "It's going to be nice to see him again. And just getting a chance to talk to some of the fans. That's going to be something that I'll really miss."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.