Angel in the outfield
Torii Hunter is a perfect match with his new club
Posted: Thursday March 20, 2008 10:06AM; Updated: Friday March 21, 2008 11:20AM
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- Hard as it is to believe, the best deal anyone made this winter just might have been done at a Del Taco, out on I-91, halfway between Anaheim and Riverside, on the way out to the desert. Over a couple iced teas, Torii Hunter's agent, Larry Reynolds, and new Angels GM Tony Reagins, two longtime baseball acquaintances, hammered out the $90-million, five-year contract that made Hunter an Angel and seemed to upset almost half the American League.
"He's a down-to-Earth guy, and I'm a down-to-Earth guy, so it was apropos to meet there," Reagins says about Reynolds.
Reagins has family in Riverside so he was acquainted with the turf and suggested the locale, a West Coast rival of Taco Bell, to negotiate the deal for one of the most beloved players in the game, and surely one of the most coveted last winter.
Before the clandestine meeting between old friends took place, everyone was assuming Hunter would leave the Twins for one of two other American league teams -- either the Rangers or White Sox. But the Angels' deal -- the biggest in club history - took little more than it takes to order a taco.
The Angels acted like "a Ninja in the middle of the night wearing all black," says Hunter, coming out of nowhere to sign the man who is now tearing up the Cactus League, with a .500 batting average (16 for 32), three HRs, 10 RBI and a 1.063 slugging percentage so far.
In reality, this is the perfect match, anyway: the perpetually sunny Hunter and Southern California. It was like a Disney ending. He says, "This is the one team I always wanted to play for. They were No. 1 on my list.''
Some folks suggested the Angels overpaid. (If so, it's the first time anyone ever could claim that at a Del Taco.) But judging by the reaction of the teams that lost out for Hunter's services, those opinions are worth less than one Macho Taco (yes, it's on the menu).
The Rangers and especially the White Sox seemed to be floored by Hunter's quick call to go west. Both teams are believed to have offered $75 million for five years, with the Rangers perhaps willing to go even higher, and offer a sixth-year option.
The White Sox saw Hunter as the one to rescue a ho-hum clubhouse; after he didn't come, they acquired spunky outfielder Nick Swisher via trade with the A's instead. Like the White Sox, the Rangers viewed Hunter as their greatest hope to solidify their lineup and enliven their clubhouse and were bitterly disappointed to have lost out.
Both teams probably also thought they had something of an inside track. Hunter is very close to Rangers manager Ron Washington, and lives in Prosper, Texas, 3 ½ hours away from the Rangers' ballpark in Arlington. As for the White Sox, Hunter is friendly with several of their people, including GM Ken Williams, and said some very glowing things about the White Sox in the press. Hunter's heard about the hurt feelings, but he stressed, "I never agreed to go anywhere else."
He also said he "loves'' the Twins and harbors no ill feelings toward them, even though they made no offer until a $45-million, three-year bid with weeks to go before his free agency, an offer Hunter himself considers window dressing. "They knew I wasn't going to take it. But they wanted to show the fans they made an offer'' Hunter said. That does appear to be the case, but that's OK, it's cool with Hunter, who said, "They'll always have a special place in my heart.''
Instead, he's moved on to bigger and, at least in terms of the standings this season, very likely better things.
Hunter said he didn't approach the Angels since they already had Gary Matthews Jr. for center field, though that didn't stop him from waiting for their call, or jumping at the chance. Matthews will move over to leftfield, though with Reggie Willits and Juan Rivera also in tow, he may lose a few at-bats (that's probably OK by the Angels, as Matthews' brush with HGH last spring surely didn't help his stock with them).
If those other teams that lost out are paying attention this spring, they can't feel any better about Hunter playing for an American League competitor. He is killing the ball out here and proving to be the perfect piece in a clubhouse that probably needed a little extra energy boost. Hunter's always upbeat nature is a welcome enhancement to a laid-back clubhouse whose biggest personality in years past was probably manager Mike Scioscia.
Southern California fans historically also are known for being laid back, but Hunter was so impressed by the Rally Monkey-fueled craziness in 2002 when the Angels knocked the Twins out of the playoffs en route to their World Series title, he made a mental note of it. "The atmosphere is crazy here. They're not laid back at all,'' Hunter insisted.
Hunter's also a great fit in the lineup, where he'll bat fourth or sometimes fifth, with Garret Anderson being the other option to protect the team's best hitter Vladimir Guerrero. Some might suggest Hunter isn't your typical cleanup man, but he will have none of that talk. "I'm going to bust your butt if you make a mistake," he warned opposing pitchers.
The numbers suggest that's more than just a boast. When batting fourth last year for the Twins, Hunter batted .337 with three homers and 16 RBIs in 23 games. In his career, he's hitting .276 with 22 homers and 93 RBIs in 158 games -- almost identical numbers to his career 162-game average of .271, 25 and 93.
As it turns out, the Angels may have found the perfect person for the middle of their defense, their lineup, and their clubhouse.