When Hunter was a 14-year-old shortstop in a Babe Ruth League game, he says, a grounder took a sharp bounce and struck him in the groin. He immediately fell to the ground, screaming in pain. "You'd think I'd have learned my lesson," he says, laughing, "but to me, it's about toughness. In this sport you can't be afraid."
Although such a philosophy might take the 26-year-old Hunter from bass to soprano, it explains his arrival as one of the American League's top defensive centerfielders and a 2001 Gold Glove winner. This season he has added punch to match his prowess afield. At week's end he was leading the league in batting (.405), tied for fourth in home runs (six) and tied for seventh in RBIs (16). Hunter's all-around play was a big reason that the low-budget Twins (at just over $40 million, Minnesota has the fourth-smallest payroll in the majors) were atop the American League Central Division after sweeping a three-game series with the Cleveland Indians.
Hunter has no fear. "To catch a ball," he says, "I'd commit suicide." In 1999, his first full season as a Twin, he earned a spot in his pitchers' hearts by routinely robbing hitters of extra bases with acrobatic catches before crashing into the outfield wall at breakneck speed. To those who had followed his career, it was nothing new. On June 21, 1997, Michael Coleman, an outfielder for the Double A Trenton ( N.J.) Thunder, smoked a shot to deep centerfield at Trenton's Waterfront Park. Just as the ball was leaving the stadium, Hunter, playing for the New Britain ( Conn.) Rock Cats, leaped, stole Coleman's would-be home run and then crashed through the eight-foot-high plywood wall like a rock through construction paper. "That catch," says Al Newman, Hunter's manager at the time and now Minnesota's third base coach, "is the most athletically impressive play I've ever seen."
Upon landing outside the stadium, Hunter was greeted by a fan walking by. "Dude," the fan said, beer in hand. "where the hell did you come from?"
Hunter didn't flinch. "I came from inside, man," he said. "How ya doin'?"
In Minnesota's second game this season, a 1-0 win over the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium, Hunter made a catch in the seventh inning that not only preserved the road win but also was, as Twins catcher A.J. Pierzynski called it, "one of the best grabs Torii's come up with—and there have been tons of them." K.C. designated hitter Mike Sweeney had blasted a mammoth shot to dead center. "It was out of the stadium," says Pierzynski. "I was sure of it." But at the last possible second Hunter leaped, twisted his glove over the wall and came down with the ball in his glove and a smile from cheek to cheek. "My first reaction was, Man, did he have another ball in his pocket or something?" says Pierzynski.
Hunter's defensive secret is no secret at all. Ever since he was a boy, growing up on the crime-infested east side of Pine Bluff, Ark., Hunter has possessed, in the words of his older brother, Taru, "freaky, insane athleticism. I remember when he was 12 and I said, 'Throw me the ball as hard as you can.' When I caught it, my glove popped like a firecracker."
During his junior season at Pine Bluff High, in a game against Little Rock's J.A. Fair High, Hunter stole two home runs by leaping up against and reaching over the outfield fence. On the second theft he caught the ball and tumbled over to the other side. Another time, on a rainy day at Lake Hamilton High in Pearcy, Hunter hit what Pine Bluff coach Billy Bock says "must be the longest home run ever by a high schooler." The ball, says Bock, was out of the stadium before Hunter ran halfway to first base, clearing an outfield light pole and a building. Later that evening Bock received a phone call from the Lake Hamilton coach: Hunter's home run had landed in the mud—550 feet away. "God's word, that's a true story," says Bock. "Torii's no myth."
Until his junior year Hunter had never seriously imagined himself as a professional ballplayer. Not only was his best sport football—Hunter was Pine Bluff's starting quarterback for two seasons—but he also had no reason to think major league teams were interested in a skinny outfielder from an Arkansas town. But before long Hunter was hearing that he was a sure first-round pick in the June 1993 draft.
On draft day 50 relatives converged on the Hunters' home, where Torii's mom, Shirley, an elementary school teacher, and dad, Theotis, an electrical engineer, raised their four sons. Torii, hoping to stay close to home, walked around in an Atlanta Braves T-shirt. But right before the 20th pick was made, the Twins called. The Twins? "I really didn't know who the Twins were," says Hunter. "I mean, I knew Kirby Puckett, but I didn't even know where they were located." Later that afternoon a Little Rock television station followed Hunter to a mall, where the producer thought it would be neat for Torii to buy his first Twins cap. One problem: "None of the stores sold their hat," Hunter says, laughing. "It was a rough start."