Hunter fires up TigerFest crowd

DETROIT — Torii Hunter made his way to the radio-interview platform at TigerFest and, before he was even introduced, received a rousing ovation from several hundred fans.

A fan wearing a Tigers cap and jacket in the third row of folding chairs began to chant, “TOR-ee! TOR-ee!” The fans around him joined in, too, greeting Detroit’s new right fielder.

Hunter took a seat and was taken aback, grinning ear to ear.

“This is crazy!” he said into a microphone. “Man, Tigers fans pack the house.”

Hunter, who has tormented the Tigers as a member of the Minnesota Twins and most recently the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, signed a two-year deal worth $26 million as one of the first free agents to come to terms this winter.

He noted that he often conversed with Tigers fans as an opponent, and told a story to illustrate how knowledgeable he found them to be.

“One fan was telling me that I was 0 for 15,” Hunter said. “I said, ‘Dude, I don’t even know that.’ So you guys are kind of like family.”

The fans clapped their glove-covered hands once more for him.

“We love you!” a lady yelled from one of the back rows.

“And I love you, too!” Hunter shouted back.

Another fan shouted, “You chose the right team!”

Hunter shook his head and kept smiling, adding, “Wow, these guys are good. I chose you guys, and thank you for allowing me to play for your team.”

Keep in mind that none of this was orchestrated; it was a spontaneous outpouring of love from Tigers fans for a player they respect with a personality they find engaging. It also was their way of saying how much they appreciated Hunter picking Detroit over, say, the Yankees or the Red Sox.

I asked Tigers manager Jim Leyland about the impact Hunter will have not only on the field — Hunter has won nine Gold Gloves and batted .313 with 92 RBI last year — but in the clubhouse.

“He’s a great guy and a great person,” Leyland said. “But Torii Hunter is a great player, and that’s why we got him.

“We don’t need a mayor (in Detroit); we’ve got Dave Bing. And Torii is probably a better outfielder than Dave Bing.”

His point is well taken, but in a long season filled with ups and downs and various personality conflicts, it helps to have a strong clubhouse leader.

Hunter will be that. Detroit missed Brandon Inge’s impact that way when it parted ways with him early last season. Adding Hunter and getting the return of a healthy Victor Martinez — another player who teammates follow — will pay dividends that can’t be quantified on baseball cards.

Tigers officials marveled at how Hunter fed off the fans and they fed off him all day long. He even came back for a second radio interview.

“The whole season, I knew I was playing with the Tigers if I left (the Angels),” said Hunter, who was eventually replaced in Anaheim by free-agent slugger Josh Hamilton.

Hunter said Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski was pleasantly surprised to discover the level of interest Hunter had, and they quickly came to terms.

“People thought I was crazy,” Hunter said. “But I want the ring … I’ve been searching a long time for the ring.

“I’m tired of sitting on the couch and watching other guys celebrate (a World Series triumph). I want to win the World Series, and I want to win it with Detroit. This is my last push.”

Hunter will be 39 when this contract runs out.

He likely will bat second and rattled off the names of the hitters behind him: “Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez.” His eyes lit up.

Hunter recalled robbing Cabrera of several hits in a recent series at Comerica Park.

“Cabrera was pretty pissed off about it,” Hunter said.

The crowd roared with laughter, and Hunter added, “Can I say pissed off?

“I robbed him three or four times. I ran past him and said, ‘What’s up, Miguel?’ He said, ‘Agghhhhh.’ Then I saw him on the bases and he said, ‘Stay away from the ball! Why do you pick on me?’”

I asked Cabrera about that exchange.

“Great!” Cabrera said. “It is great we have him now. We are going to have him get the outs.”

Hunter can do it all. He even was a barista at a local Dunkin’ Donuts during this week’s Tigers caravan through the state.

“On the caravan,” Hunter said, “I’ve seen a different side of Detroit and the metroplex. It’s nice! It’s nice, man!

“People have asked me, ‘Why do you want to go to Detroit?’ I tell them, ‘It’s nice, man. It’s the place to be.’”

Who knows, years from now, when he’s done stealing hits and scoring runs and Bing has stepped aside, maybe he’ll run for mayor.