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Lyle Spencer

In Anaheim, Torii is gone but far from forgotten

In Anaheim, Torii is gone but far from forgotten play video for In Anaheim, Torii is gone but far from forgotten

ANAHEIM -- Torii Hunter, hitting a torrid, American League-leading .413 in his Tigers uniform as he returned to Angel Stadium on Friday night, quickly has attracted a Triple Crown admirer in his new clubhouse.

"I love having Torii here," Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera said. "He's a person who loves the game and wants to win. That's the most important thing for me. When I heard he wanted to sign with us, I was excited. He's what we need to help take us to the next level."

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That, for the reigning AL champions, can only mean a World Series title.

Hunter drew a rousing reception from Angels fans as he stepped in to face Tommy Hanson with one out in the first inning. As the late-arriving crowd, filling about half the stadium, cheered and applauded, Hunter stepped back and raised his helmet in acknowledgement. He promptly lined a single to center field.

Taking his position in right after Hanson pitched out of trouble, Hunter was greeted with a standing ovation by the fans in the right-field seats, accompanied by a familiar "Torii!" chant.

"Hopefully, I did a great job here," Hunter said before the game. "It'll show, whether I get booed or get a standing ovation, how I carried himself."

Along with being one of the game's toughest hombres, Hunter is one of the funniest. He has nothing against Mexican food, but he avoids "hot tamales" at all costs. In Torii-speak, that's a question that's a little too warm to digest in any diplomatic matter.

Asked upon his return about the hostile reception Josh Hamilton received in his homecoming in Texas, Hunter -- who signed a two-year, $26 million free agent deal with the Tigers when the Angels cut ties with him -- went to his familiar response.

"I'm not getting into that hot tamale," Hunter said. "I don't say crazy things like that. He played the game. He helped them get to [two] World Series. I'm not sure what happened there."

What happened was Hamilton, after five big seasons in a Rangers uniform, alienated the fan base by signing his five-year, $125 million deal with the Angels and then making comments Texans found disparaging, notably calling it a "football state" appraising baseball as a secondary sport.

"He told the truth," Hunter said. "Sometimes it hurts and you get scrutinized for it."

Hunter has been in that position a few times in his career as a free-thinking individual. He sent out a tweet in December that was taken by some as a shot at Angels owner Arte Moreno: "I was told money was tight but I guess Arte had money hidden under a mattress. Business is business but don't lie."

Since then, Hunter has made it a point to take the high road with respect to his departure from an Angels club he graced -- and led -- for five seasons.

"It was more of a joke that went bad," he said on Friday evening. "No bitterness. I never had any bitterness. There wasn't any animosity. It had nothing to do with Josh Hamilton."

When the Angels chose not to make him the $13.3 million offer for 2013, Hunter moved on. Seeking his first championship, he settled quickly on Detroit.

"I love it here," Hunter said of his new home with the Tigers. "Great group of guys, and [manager Jim] Leyland is a great manager to play for."

On Thursday night, arriving from Oakland, Hunter dined at a local establishment and ran into Moreno and club executives Dennis Kuhl and John Carpino.

"God put us both together," he said. "We had a good conversation. We talked about 10 minutes. It was all great."

Hunter was unsure how he would be received by Angels fans, but his former teammates were sure it would be highly supportive.

"He'll get a big ovation," Mark Trumbo said. "Everybody here loves Torii. I remember coming up in 2010 and being fortunate to have a locker right next to him. I was able to pick his brain; he had a ton of insights. The last couple of years have been really special. Torii is the total package: tremendous player on the field, tremendous leader, outspoken guy, great with the fans and media."

When Peter Bourjos called up by the Angels in the second half of the 2010 season, Hunter, a nine-time Gold Glove Award winner as a center fielder, was forced to right field.

"I got there early in Baltimore and was shagging [fly balls] in the outfield," Bourjos said. "Torii came out there in street clothes and said, 'It's the best thing for the team. I'm going to be in right field, you're gonna be in center. Anything you want to ask me, come to me, any time.' He handled it as gracefully as a player could. He meant so much to me, and [Mike] Trout. Torii's an unbelievable player and unbelievable person, a great clubhouse leader."

The Angels placed Trout's locker right next to Hunter's. The veteran was virtually a guru to the kid as he emerged in 2012 as the game's brightest young talent, running away with the AL Rookie of the Year and finishing second to Cabrera in the MVP vote.

"It's the way he carried himself -- on the field, off the field, with fans, with everybody," Trout said. "He told me I could call him any time, and I did. He was always there for me. He really didn't even have to say anything. His presence, being around him, that helped me play with confidence, the right way.

"Everything is positive with Torii. There's nothing negative. He did what's right for his family. He's close to his kid [Torii Jr., a football standout] at Notre Dame. He's still swinging the bat, making great plays. He'll shoot me a text of him making a play and say, 'Not bad for an old guy.' I saw him last night at the restaurant. It's always great seeing Torii."

Hunter has no doubt that he can play beyond the two years on his contract if he chooses to do so.

"I've got good genetics," he said. "No steroids, nothing in me. I'm organic. I've always been a guy who gets out there early, running. I keep myself in shape. This is like when you take a test. If you don't study for it, you're going to fail. I get a massage, get in the whirlpool, eat right. I've done all those things, and it's paying off for me. I feel great."

The Tigers clearly feel blessed to have him.

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

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