Hunter knows clock is ticking on tenure with Twins
Posted: Monday March 12, 2007 12:57PM; Updated: Monday March 12, 2007 5:45PM
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Nobody knows where Torii Hunter will be this time next spring. Nobody knows, if you get right down to it, where he'll be four months from now.
For now, though, you can find Hunter where he has seemingly always been this time of the year: holding court and watching over his team from a corner locker at the Twins' spring training facility here on the Gulf Coast of Florida.
"This is my home. I've been here, in this organization, what, 14 years? I don't want to leave home," Hunter tells me, the stereo thumping behind him and his teammates milling around on a brilliant March morning. "But if Mama kicks me out, then I gotta go. She pays the bills."
In classic Torii talk -- Hunter is one of the most gregarious, fun-loving, easy-goingest players in baseball -- "Mama" is the only man that counts when it comes to the Twins.
"Mama? Carl Pohlad is Mama," says Hunter, laughing at the idea of the Twins' owner. "And if Mama wants me out of the house, it's time to go."
This has been a kind of sadly sweet past few months for Hunter, the Twins' 31-year-old center fielder. He watched with more than a little interest as the free-agent market for outfielders went wacko this winter. Alfonso Soriano -- only six months younger than Hunter -- got $136 million over eight years to play center field (or thereabouts) for the Cubs. Vernon Wells, 28, signed a seven-year, $126 million extension that begins in 2008 to continue patrolling center for the Blue Jays. Carlos Lee landed a six-year, $100 million deal to play left field, for now, with the Astros. Lee is less than a year younger than Hunter.
Even Gary Matthews Jr. did well for himself. The Angels coughed up $50 million in a five-year deal to entice the well-traveled Matthews to play center for them. Matthews is a year older than Hunter and not nearly the same caliber of player.
So here Hunter sits, eligible for free agency after the season, with all sorts of possibilities ringing around his head. He'd like nothing more than to sign a big-money contract with the Twins, who drafted him in '93, nursed him through a lengthy minor-league career, rewarded him with a $32 million contract in '03 and surprised many last October by exercising an option for '07 that will pay Hunter $12 million.
But these are, after all, the Twins. They are the model for the self-controlled, small-revenue franchise, the barons of baseball's budget conscious. The chances of the Twins paying Hunter what he would be worth on the free-agent market? (For the record, that'd be north of Matthews, and maybe more than Lee, but probably not Soriano money.)
The chances aren't good. Not good at all, even for a guy recognized as the "face of the franchise." And Hunter realizes as much.
"That's a cool thing, to be a 'face of the franchise,'" says Hunter, one of the longest-tenured active players to stay with one team for his career [see chart]. "But now it's to the point ... it's reality. Reality has slapped me in the face. I understand that. I always knew that one day it was going to come to an end."
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