The only thing missing from Torii Hunter’s return to Minnesota press conference was Reuben Studdard crooning “Love, love, love” as Hunter entered the room.
Though Hunter originally hails from Pine Bluff, Ark., in reference to the great state of Minnesota, Hunter said, “It’s always been love. This is home for me.” After seven seasons away, Hunter returns to the Twins franchise that drafted him in 1993, with a one-year $10.5 million contract for the upcoming season.
When referencing the Minnesota Twins, there is no getting around the great name of Kirby Puckett. Though Hunter did not make his Twins major league debut until 1997 – two years after Puckett’s final year – the smile, athleticism and positive spirit emanating from Hunter, served as a great transplant to the heart of the Twins that Puckett represented.
In 2006 Puckett died of a stroke at the far too young age of 45. One year later Hunter left for greener championship pastures with the Los Angeles Angels. Hunter’s personality and performance have been missed ever since.
Since Hunter left, the Twins have slowly lost the winning consistency seen during the several years of his all-star level production, remaining near the basement of the American League Central Division since 2011.
And so Hunter’s return is not all about fuzzy feelings of home, but most fundamentally about the need to have talented feet able to touch home base in the course of scoring runs.
“We need a right handed hitter. It allows for a more balanced option of the field,” said Twins General Manager Terry Ryan at the press conference.
Hunter’s production in recent years would have led the team in overall production, including RBI.
In addition the production, as one of the youngest teams in the league, Hunter’s veteran presence and leadership nature should be valuable to kindle better performance from the youth of the Twins team.
“These guys have talent. You see the potential,” said Hunter.
New Twins manager Paul Molitor (Twins player 1996-1998) recalled Hunter’s early years as a teammate.
“He played fearlessly,” said Molitor.
The Twins have managed to play fairly fearlessly over the years without Hunter, but it is his five All-Star appearances and nine Gold Glove awards that will most tangibly help. Many would argue that the talented players the Twins have allowed to leave, only to blossom with other teams, would have serviceably filled the performance void left by Hunter. The Twins have juggled young prospects and free agent acquisitions over the last few years trying to rediscover the consistent formula of the past. Now they are reaching back to the past, hoping Hunter can pierce the recent veil of irrelevance.
Hunter’s travels have likely been good for his career, experiencing other clubhouses, systems and title runs, but, of course, there’s no place like home. The Twins and their fans can hope for the ever elusive storybook return, but realizing the value of what they had in Hunter, and the willingness to welcome him back as a winning solution, may be the beginning of an adjustment in team culture that bats in the runs needed to win more games. Winning solves a lot, and Hunter is certainly a winner.
“He played fearlessly.” – Twins Manager Paul Molitor