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08/21/08 10:43 PM ET
Hunter still feels odd facing Twins
Center fielder has impact in Minnesota by helping Span
By Kelly Thesier / MLB.com
ANAHEIM -- The laugh was the same. And that trademark smile, well, it hasn't changed either. But for Torii Hunter, there are a few things that are different for him now that he's settled into his new life in Los Angeles. Like say, the traffic. "Moving to L.A. was cool, but the traffic was crazy," Hunter said with a chuckle. "It was an easy transition. I'm staying out at Newport Coast. It's pretty nice out there. Coming out here, everybody had everything laid out for me pretty easy. They had the restaurants down. They had the cleaners down. They had everything down." It's been four months since Hunter last faced his former team in the opening series of the season between the Twins and Angels. But after spending the first 15 years of his career in the Twins organization, Hunter said his move to the Angels has gone as well as he could have expected. The first series in Minnesota was emotional for Hunter, but he said it's a much different feeling this time around. Having established himself in L.A., Hunter said this time the emotions aren't nearly as strong. Although, he admits, it's still a little odd facing Minnesota. "I'm comfortable here and I'm starting to fit in. I love my teammates over here," Hunter said. "But sometimes it's hard. I was sleeping today, thinking we are playing Minnesota. The team I grew up with. At the same time, it's not the same as Opening Day. It's totally different." Hunter may be gone from Minnesota. But that doesn't mean he's forgotten. His mark on the club can still be felt -- perhaps most notably thanks to his relationship with outfielder Denard Span. Hunter reached out to Span after the Twins selected him with their first-round pick in the 2002 Draft, much like Kirby Puckett did to Hunter. The two players developed a strong bond that has continued despite Hunter being in a different organization. The two players still talk once a week, Hunter said. And while Span has not taken over Hunter's center-field spot as was expected, the outfielder has made quite a name for himself with the Twins this season -- particularly since his second callup in late June. And that success has certainly made Hunter proud. "I'm happy for Denard," said Hunter, who planned on taking Span out for dinner after Thursday's game. "They just kept sending him down, telling him he wasn't ready. He knew he was ready ... but it's all about being patient. I told him to be patient and your turn will come. Once you get it, don't let it slide or slip away. He got up and right away made an impact for the team." When Hunter first faced his former team in early April, no one would have really predicted the Twins to be in their current position -- sitting one game back of the White Sox in the American League Central -- when the two clubs squared off again. Not after the Twins said goodbye to Hunter, Cy Young award winner Johan Santana and pitcher Carlos Silva in the offseason. One person who isn't surprised? Hunter. He emphasized on Thursday that he didn't consider this season to be a rebuilding one for Minnesota despite all the losses. "I knew they played the game the right way and they were going to compete," Hunter said. "Everybody knew that in that division. Every team, you go over there and they will tell you the Minnesota Twins are tough. They play the game the right way." But for manager Ron Gardenhire, the loss of Hunter is still felt despite his club's success without him. "Torii, we took him for granted," Gardenhire said. "He just came to play every day. Guys like that who get it done, are your leaders, play the game the way we like to see if played hard everyday with a smile, that's what he was for us. We know there are changes and everything. But that was a big hole created. ... You don't replace Torii, we just get another center fielder." It hasn't been an easy road for Hunter's successor in center field, Carlos Gomez. After an early surge with the Twins, Gomez's production has slowed down -- particularly in the second half. Gardenhire reiterated that Gomez has done fine and will continue to learn. And Hunter made sure to urge Twins fans not to be concerned about Gomez. "This guy has tremendous talent," Hunter said. "They call him 'Loose Cannon' I heard, but that talent he has is unbelievable. Speed, arm and he's going to hit. He's 22 years old. ... I remember when I was 22, 23 I was still learning how to hit. I definitely think if you be patient with him, he's smart enough to go out there and learn as much as he can. I think he's going to be a big impact in the organization." Hunter's connection to the Twins can still be felt by the way he speaks about the organization. But with his team chasing the top record in the American League, Hunter wants to pull off as many victories over the Twins as he can right now. Still, he said he's hoping that the two clubs might perhaps meet up again in the playoffs. "I want them to make it [to the postseason] because I have a lot of respect for the organization. I want those guys to make it there and go on," Hunter said. But, of course, that respect only goes so far.
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.