It got rougher. After signing for a $450,000 bonus, Hunter batted .190 for the Twins' affiliate in the Gulf Coast rookie league, swinging at pitches way out of the strike zone and seemingly trying to hit every ball out of the park. It was a recurring theme over the next four seasons: Hunter tantalized the organization with catch after miraculous catch but drove coaches crazy with a reckless approach to hitting. As a result, Hunter says, numerous minor league instructors insisted that he follow their directions. "It got to the point where I was listening to everybody," he says. "I would try hitting the ball the other way because a coach told me to. Then someone would tell me not to hit it the other way. Then I should. Then I shouldn't. It was killing me."
While playing for New Britain in 1997, Hunter, batting in the .220s, seriously considered quitting baseball to attend college. But whenever he thought about Pine Bluff, he was reminded that his struggle was nothing compared to the tough streets of the old neighborhood, where gangs took over the corners and drugs were the currency. "How could I give up," Hunter says, "when my life was so good and so many people back home were battling to make it every day?"
Near the end of the 1997 season Newman called Hunter into his office. "Congratulations," he said, "you're going to the Show." The next evening Hunter was at Camden Yards with the Twins for a game against the Baltimore Orioles. He returned to the minors after appearing in that game as a pinch runner, but the trip accomplished what management had hoped. "Ever since then I've been a better player," Hunter says. "I knew what it was like to play in the big leagues, and I badly wanted to get back."
In 1998, with his grip down to the knob and his confidence soaring, Hunter batted .282 for New Britain and then .337 for Triple A Salt Lake. The next year he made the Minnesota roster, and except for 55 games with Salt Lake in 2000, he has been with the Twins ever since. Last year Hunter hit .261 with 27 home runs and 92 RBIs.
Now that Ron Gardenhire has replaced Tom Kelly as manager, Hunter expects even bigger things. "I have a lot of respect for T.K., but a lot of us felt like he was on some sort of power trip with the younger players," says Hunter. "You could hit five bullets to the shortstop, but you couldn't play if you didn't go the other way. It was definitely uncomfortable. This season things feel fresh. It's exciting to be a Twin."
And exciting to be Torii Hunter. In June 2000 Torii and his wife of five years, Katrina, moved from Pine Bluff to The Colony, Texas, outside Dallas, where they built a 3,600-square-foot house chock-full of Nintendos and PlayStations and Xboxes. The couple has a six-year-old son, Torii Jr., and also raise Torii's six-year-old son, Monshadrik. (Hunter has two other sons, Cameron, 9, and Darius, 7. Both live with their mothers in Pine Bluff.)
Sometimes, when he is standing in centerfield during the national anthem, Hunter looks all around, overwhelmed by the thought that he is being paid $2.4 million this season to play baseball. Soon enough, a screaming drive will come his way, and Hunter will go balls to the wall to catch it.