Hunter back to old stomping grounds

Hunter back to old stomping grounds

MINNEAPOLIS -- Of the thousands of ballplayers he has scouted, studied and admired in his 60-plus years inside baseball, Preston Gomez placed one above all the rest, in a class of his own. The Say Hey Kid.

"Willie Mays was the greatest all-around player I've ever seen," Gomez, 86, said a few days before he was struck by a pickup truck in Blythe, Calif., and hospitalized with serious head injuries. "I've seen a lot of great players, but none as great as this guy."

Now in recovery -- fighting back with the strength that defined his remarkable career from Cuban shortstop to coach to manager to revered Angels consultant -- Gomez was in the stands in the Angels' Arizona Spring Training camp the day he made reference to Mays, the one and only.

On the practice field in front of him, Gomez was watching the newest Angels import, Torii Hunter, slash line drives in the batting cage.

"That guy Hunter, he reminds me of Mays in some ways," Gomez said. "He has that same manner, that same attitude. And he can do it all -- run, field, throw, hit, hit with power.

"I've been watching him, and I love his toughness. I think he's going to have a big influence on all of our players. Players like Torii, that's what they do. They make everyone else work as hard and care as much as they do."

As compliments go, they can't possibly come much higher than that.

Torii Hunter makes his Angels debut in his old playground, the Metrodome, on Monday evening, and there is something fitting in that.

Minnesotans understand who he is and what he gave them for nine seasons and 1,233 games: heart and soul, style and substance. The seven Rawlings Gold Gloves are symbols of his defensive excellence, and the 192 home runs and 711 runs batted in are numbers reflecting his offensive production, but what Hunter delivered went beyond all that.

He gave the people their money's worth, night after night, whether he felt good or not. He never cheated anyone, the true measure of the professional.

And so it happened, as it does, that free agency arrived and he moved on, to greener pastures, so to speak. It was time for Torii just as it was time for his friend, Johan Santana, the matchless southpaw who took New York's money and ran to the Mets' embrace.

Hunter will retain fond memories of the good times, and so will all clear-thinking fans aware of the nature of such things.

Having had six weeks to observe the man behind all those spectacular catches and game-turning doubles and homers, the Angels have a clear picture of why the homecoming is so meaningful.

"Torii's a special guy," Howard Kendrick, Hunter's young locker mate, said as the club was preparing to depart Arizona. The two lockered next to each other all spring, and Hunter's imprint was visible in Kendrick's laughter and the gleam in his eyes.

"I've been watching him, how he handles things -- and how he hits," Kendrick said. "I'm learning a lot from Torii, being around him. He has a lot of knowledge, a lot of things he shares with me.

"We have similar swings; he just has a lot more power. I watch his at-bats, see how guys pitch him. We talk about situations. We talk about a lot of stuff."

Kendrick is just starting out, and Hunter has a deep treasure chest of insights to draw from to suit any occasion.

This is what veteran leadership is all about, and the Angels have thrown into their eclectic mix one of the best.

When Mike Scioscia was a young Dodgers catcher, he observed Dusty Baker's presence just as Kendrick is now studying Hunter. Baker, Scioscia found, was all about breaking down barriers, bringing people together and making them click.

"Dusty was certainly a uniting force in that clubhouse," Scioscia said. "Dusty was always a common denominator, a sounding board. He was terrific in the clubhouse.

"I haven't been around Torii that long, but there's an energy he brings, and you can't miss it. Torii's personality is fun to be around. He's really a light -- just a good person, good with all his teammates. He's been around, knows the game.

"I think his personality will certainly be a positive in the clubhouse. The guys can rally around him."

Unlike other stars who came barging through clubhouse doors, claiming leadership prematurely, Hunter has been properly respectful of gentlemen such as Garret Anderson and Vladimir Guerrero.

There was no reason for Torii to call attention to himself. The Angels are keenly aware of who he is and what he can do for them. Like Preston Gomez, they know the real deal when they see it.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.