Tigers’ Hunter learned to lead

LAKELAND, Fla. — How does a leader become one?

They do so by admiring other leaders and aspiring to pick up their torch.

In Torii Hunter’s case, those leaders ranged from his mother, Shirley, to his Minnesota Twins teammate, Kirby Puckett, and a revered opponent, Ken Griffey, Jr.

And at every turn, ever since he was a young boy attending the Indiana Street Baptist Church in Pine Bluff, Ark., the leader in his life has been Jesus Christ.

Hunter, the Tigers’ new right fielder, has a special way of connecting with more than the rawhide of a baseball. He bonds with people, and they follow him.

When a season reaches its darkest days, during the inevitable losing streak or some messy controversy, you can be sure his torch will be lit brightly and followed.

“He just knows how to work the crowd and get people on the same page,” Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson said. “Everybody enjoys his presence, and one of the most important things in a clubhouse is having people enjoy your presence.

“There are different ways to lead, and he’s already showing us what a leader he is. He’s a guy everyone wants to be around and everyone wants to follow.”

Hunter goes out to dinner with teammates, talks with their children in the clubhouse, and treats everyone with respect and courtesy. He’s getting to know his teammates as people and gaining their trust.

With trust, you have the keys to lead.

“He brings leadership,” 2012 American League MVP and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera said. “He’s a great, great guy, and he signed here because he wants to win. That means a lot.”

Signing a two-year contract for $26 million on Nov. 19 after seeking out the Tigers brought Hunter instant credibility with everyone in the organization.

With credibility, you have the right to lead.

LEARNING TO LEAD

Hunter, 37, picked up on that from Hall of Famers Puckett and Paul Molitor while playing for the Twins. Puckett, whose career ended two years before Hunter made his big-league debut in 1997, went out of his way for Hunter during spring training camps in Fort Myers, Fla., and became his mentor.

“I watched guys like Paul Molitor and Kirby Puckett,” Hunter said. “Where did Paul go, what did he do? Where did Kirby go, what did he do?

“When Paul left (and retired in 1998), his presence was missed. When Kirby left, his presence was missed. And that’s why I wanted to be like Paul and Kirby; I wanted to be a leader.

“Kirby took care of me, mentored me. He called me ‘Little Pup,’ and talked to me about finances, family, how to carry yourself, how to smile. It’s hard to be a leader, but it’s important. Young guys are watching.”

Puckett’s career was over in 1995, cut short by glaucoma after only 12 seasons. But he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on his first ballot, in 2001, because he was a dynamic performer who made his presence felt throughout the game.

When Puckett died of a stroke in 2006 at the age of 45, his spirit lived on in players like Hunter and the countless others he touched.

That’s why Hunter brings more than nine Gold Gloves, 297 homers and 1,986 hits to Detroit. He also brings a presence and a sense of accountability that says, “Follow me.”

THE GOLDEN RULE

Long before Puckett influenced Hunter, his mother made an indelible impression.

“My mom took me and my four brothers to church every Wednesday night and Sunday morning,” Hunter said. “And it didn’t matter if you stayed up too late playing video games, you were going to church. She wanted us to learn the word of God, the parables and the scriptures.

“We learned the most important rule — the Golden Rule — if you want to be treated with love and respect, you need to treat others with love and respect.

“Whether or not you are a Christian, you have temptations, and all of these things you learn in church will help you.”

Indiana Street Baptist Church was his beacon in a “tough neighborhood” in Pine Bluff, where a young boy had to “knuckle up and protect yourself” to survive.

“A church is your home,” Hunter said. “I wanted to be baptized as a young boy of 5 or 6, but my grandma wanted to wait until she was sure I knew the difference between heaven and hell, right and wrong.

“When I said, ‘Jesus Christ is my lord and savior,’ I was baptized when I was 11 or 12.”

He can still remember the shouts of his mother that day in the church sanctuary: “Oh! God! Hallelujah!”

The foundation had been set for her son.

PAYING FORWARD

Speak with Hunter for five minutes and you’ll hear him mention being “fruitful” and “paying forward” as surely as he’ll track down a ball hit to the gap. It’s all about showing character and performing honorable deeds for Hunter.

“I don’t push my Christianity on people,” Hunter said. “I like to use parables and try to be subtle in my lessons on everything. Sometimes the little things are important.

“Like last year, Mike Trout was signing his autographs with an M and a long line and a T and a long line. I told him, ‘Look, 150 years from now, when you are dead and gone, someone is going to hit this ball in the weeds and pick it up. They are not going to know whose autograph that is. But if you write M-i-k-e T-r-o-u-t, they will go look up your name … He changed the way he signs his autograph.”

When he signed with the Tigers, Hunter called pitcher Rick Porcello to see about buying his No. 48, which had been Hunter’s number with the Twins and Angels. They agreed to have Hunter donate money to the Hurricane Sandy relief efforts on the New Jersey shore, near Porcello’s home.

“That was a great idea Torri had,” Porcello said, “and it tells you what he is all about.”

It was a quick connection made between two new teammates. Hunter has also learned that it’s important to “pay forward” to opposing players.

He recalled throwing his helmet after making an out as a young player and trotting out to center field to find a surprise. Griffey, the Seattle Mariners’ superstar, awaited him with a message.

“Griffey told me, ‘Hey, brother, take the lumps. You’re going to be a superstar. Keep your chin up, smile.’

“He lifted me up. I learned about paying it forward. It’s about being fruitful.”

Hunter had a similar conversation with a young Victor Martinez, telling him to smile as a rookie opponent. Now they’re teammates for the first time.

Said Hunter: “When I saw Victor here, he told me, ‘I never forgot that, Papi!’ And Victor just killed us.

“I told him, ‘I never should’ve told you that.’”

Hunter smiled and shook his head.

You’ll see opponents and teammates gravitating to him for the same reason. He’s somebody everybody wants to follow.