Nineteen long years ago, Torii Hunter made his big league debut for the Minnesota Twins. On August 22, 1997, Hunter came on to run for catcher Terry Steinbach in the ninth inning of a 3-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles. Then, it was right back down to the minor leagues for the 21-year-old Hunter. Hunter has come a long way since his inauspicious debut all those years ago, but his career has somehow wound back to the same place it started. For Hunter and the Twins, that could not be a more perfect situation.
The Minnesota Twins were not supposed to be a good baseball team in 2015. Most thought they would finish in last place in a beefed-up AL Central. Here they are, however, on the season’s final weekend with a chance (albeit a slim one) to claim the second Wild Card spot for the American League. Just being in the picture with two games to go is a massive accomplishment for a young team without much starting pitching. As he has been for his entire career, Hunter has been the glue that has kept the team together. The Twins are a young team, and face of the franchise Joe Mauer has always been more of a “lead by example” type. Youngsters like Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, Aaron Hicks, Eduardo Escobar, and Byron Buxton need a veteran to show them how to play the game but also accommodate and work with their youth.
Hunter is the perfect player to serve as a mentor and guide as this bunch of young Twins matures into a Major League playoff contender. The five-time All-Star and nine-time Gold Glover brings the same youthful exuberance to the ballpark every day at the age of 40 as he did back in the early 2000’s when the Twins were an annual playoff contender. Hunter was the heart and soul of those Minnesota teams. Over a decade later, and two teams removed, he remains the same heart and soul.
Many veterans treat playing or mentoring rookies as a burden or annoyance. Not Hunter. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that even at the age of 40, Hunter still plays the game like a 25-year-old. His skills are in decline, and his .241 batting average is the lowest of his career, but Hunter’s passion and love of baseball have never dulled. He has connected perfectly with the young, skittish colts in the Twins’ clubhouse. Rookies need a veteran leader to pull back on the reins at the right moments, but also one who is willing to turn them loose. That’s what Hunter brings to the clubhouse. Baseball needs to be fun at times over a 162-game grind, and that means dance parties following every win need to be embraced with a youthful joie de vivre.
Torii Hunter has not yet made a decision whether 2016 will be his 20th season in the Major Leagues or his first season as a former player. He did not return to Minnesota looking to help build a contender, but that is exactly what has happened. The Twins will always have a spot in their clubhouse next year if Hunter wants to continue playing. Minnesota is building something special, and Torii Hunter has played a huge role in making the successful 2015 season a reality for the Twins.