When the Minnesota Twins signed Torii Hunter this past winter for his reunion in Minnesota, the reasoning was twofold.
Of course, the Twins knew Hunter could provide leadership in the clubhouse and serve as a vocal role model for the team’s younger players. At the same time, Minnesota’s front office — and Hunter himself — insisted the veteran outfielder could still produce, even at the ripe old age of 39.
Hunter’s impact in the clubhouse has been well-documented. He was the instigator of the Twins’ postgame dance parties and has been a veteran presence since day one. Hunter’s impact on the field has been just as important — perhaps more so. Entering Tuesday’s game in Boston, Hunter has a team-high 32 RBI, is tied for the best batting average (.279) and is third on the Twins in home runs with seven.
"I’ve been consistent my whole life. It shouldn’t be shocking to some people," Hunter said. "It shouldn’t be shocking. How is it shocking? When I hear it, I’m like, ‘Look at the numbers. I hadn’t dropped off yet.’"
Indeed, Hunter put up solid offensive numbers last year with Detroit, hitting 17 homers and driving in 83 runs while playing 142 games at age 38. He’s yet to have a season with fewer than 15 home runs since 2001 with the Twins. He’s had 80 or more RBI in each of the last five years, and his average has been below .280 just once since 2009.
The fact that Hunter is producing on the field has only solidified the example he leads off of it. If he were struggling at the plate or in the field, his message might not quite mean the same. But he’s hitting, playing sound defense, and as a result can dance after every Twins home victory.
"I’ve said this many times, it would be nice if you bring in a guy like that that he’s performing, which he’s doing," said Twins general manager Terry Ryan. "You bring in a guy that’s going to have influence in the clubhouse, they almost have to perform to have that influence in the clubhouse, and he is doing that."
When the season began, Hunter was not surprisingly given one of the corner spots in the Twins’ clubhouse, a spot reserved for the team leaders. It was the same in spring training when he had a corner locker next to young outfielders Aaron Hicks and Byron Buxton.
Hunter’s tutelage began then and has continued through the first two months of the season. But in many cases, Hunter is leading by example by what he does in games and how he goes about preparing for them.
"It’s a no-brainer that I’m going to be fruitful and give it back to everybody, I don’t care who it is. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole career," Hunter said. "I always sit down and talk to everybody individually, encourage them and give them some of the wisdom that I’ve developed from healed pain, from a lot of failures and just learning from whether it’s pitching or whether it’s hitting, I’ve learned a lot in this game and am still learning. You never stop learning."
When the Twins got off to a 1-6 start at the beginning of the season, many of Hunter’s Twins teammates credited him for helping keep things calm. The 19-year big-league veteran had been through rough stretches before and knew that one week does not define a season.
Turns out, Hunter was right; Minnesota overcame that rough opening week and eventually won 20 games in the month of May en route to securing the best record in the American League. The patience that Hunter preached paid off — just one more example of his influence within the locker room.
"He’s a guy that’s been around for a long time, has been on a lot of great teams," said Twins first baseman Joe Mauer, who has one of the other corner lockers in Minnesota’s clubhouse. "He brings a great energy every day. He works hard. It’s always nice to add a player and a person like that."
Hunter is a five-time All-Star, including the 2002 and 2007 seasons with Minnesota. When the latest ballot update for the 2015 All-Star Game was released Monday, Hunter was the only Twins position player on the list. He checked in at 14th among all American League All-Stars.
Whether or not Hunter earns his sixth All-Star nod won’t change the fact that he’s already been one of the Twins’ most valuable players through two impressive months of the season. The rest of Minnesota seems to be following Hunter’s lead.
"Last year we found a way to lose a game by a passed ball or a wild pitch or an error. Sometimes it’s a maturity of a club. We were quite young and we found ways just not to get the win," Ryan said. "A lot of times it’s experience and maturity and getting the job done, and we seem to be able to do that right now. Some of that’s going to be Torii Hunter’s influence on this team. I don’t think there’s any mistake that he’s had an influence on this ballclub."