LAKELAND, Fla. — Upon arriving at camp, Torii Hunter announced that he wanted to speak with all reporters present outside the Joker Marchant Stadium clubhouse.
Several TV camera crews and more than a dozen reporters formed a semicircle around the Tigers’ new right fielder, and someone in the crowd said, “Man, this is like the Super Bowl.”
Well, it wasn’t exactly that kind of media throng, but for a Thursday morning in a midsized central Florida town, it wasn’t bad.
“Man, I’m excited to get the baseball season going,” Hunter said.
He was also happy about having his wife, Katrina, staying with him during spring training, now that his four sons are older and Torii Jr. is headed to Notre Dame on a football scholarship.
“I usually go on a dinner date with a teammate on Valentine’s Day, and that’s not right,” Hunter said.
Where’s he taking Katrina?
“McDonald’s,” he said, drawing heavy laughter. “We’re going to play in the balls after dinner.”
Then he noted that he was taking her someplace nice and said, “Hey, it should be Valentine’s Day every day for every man. It shouldn’t be just one day!”
Hunter’s new spring-training locker is between catcher Alex Avila to his left and Justin Verlander to his right. It’s the one occupied for many years by Brandon Inge, who recently signed a minor-league deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Hunter had a long and pleasant conversation in the afternoon with Verlander and Avila.
SOUTHPAW BP PITCHER
The Tigers added something they, surprisingly, didn’t have last year: a left-handed batting-practice pitcher.
The new southpaw throwing behind the L-screen is Ed Hodge, who pitched for the 1984 Minnesota Twins and has coached in the minors and at the college level. Bullpen catchers Scott Pickens and Jeff Kunkel also throw batting practice, but both are right-handers.
“He throws B.P. like Warren Spahn and Whitey Ford,” said Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who credited hitting coach Lloyd McClendon for recommending Hodge.
Left-handed hitters Prince Fielder and Avila are pleased with the addition of Hodge and believe it will reap benefits.
“It means a lot,” said Fielder said, who equated facing lefties in games without seeing one in BP with an academic problem. “How are you supposed to pass the test without doing homework?
“From the seventh inning on, that (lefties) is all I am going to see, so it’s going to help. It eliminates the fear of doubt.”
Leyland was asked if the closer spot was 22-year-old rookie Bruce Rondon’s job to lose.
“No, it’s not like that,” Leyland said. “I’m going to look at all my options, and hopefully I’ll make a decision.
“But I doubt anyone will be anointed the closer out of spring training. It might happen, but I doubt it. It’s a front-burner thing that is on the back-burner.”
It’s a big decision, but Leyland doesn’t have to make it until the Tigers take the lead into the bottom of the ninth inning of a game in the opening series at Minnesota.
“I’m not going to put that kind of pressure on the kid,” Leyland said. “I’m not going to set it now.”
That would serve no purpose. Rondon could eliminate himself with an erratic spring training showing, but can’t truly be “anointed” until passing the test during the regular season and showing he can bounce back from a blown save or two.
Leyland rattled off the names of Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal as possibilities beyond Rondon.
“All those guys could close,” Leyland said.
VALVERDE STILL LOOKING FOR JOB
Jose Valverde, the Tigers’ closer the last three years, remains unsigned.
“I’m shocked — totally shocked and brokenhearted,” Leyland said. “This guy was absolutely fantastic and one of the best teammates I’ve been around. In two weeks, everything he did was forgotten.”
Valverde’s horrible postseason showing cost him the closer role in the playoffs -– just one year after leading the league with 49 saves and not blowing a single one.
Unfortunately for Valverde and the Tigers, his splitter went south on him and he got tagged as strictly a fastball pitcher.
Why didn’t Detroit give him another shot?
“The Tigers felt it was just time,” Leyland said. AROUND THE HORN
Tigers second baseman Omar Infante was added to Venezuela’s World Baseball Classic roster, along with third baseman Miguel Cabrera and pitcher Anibal Sanchez … Pitchers threw in the batting cages because of Thursday morning rain showers … The full squad has its first workout Friday morning, and Leyland will address players in small groups to go over camp purpose, rules and dealing with expectations.