MINNEAPOLIS Torii Hunter is not a stranger to Target Field, having visited the Twins' new park while with the Los Angeles Angels. But Hunter will be spending quite a bit more time this season at the downtown Minneapolis ballpark.
Hunter signed with the Detroit Tigers this year as a free agent, meaning he'll face his former Twins club plenty this season. As it turns out, Hunter and the Tigers are in Minnesota this week for their first series of the year, a three-game tilt against the Twins at Target Field.
Hunter's most recent visit is a bit different than his trips with the Angels, he admitted. Now, he's on the enemy.
"It feels weird, honestly. It feels weird. When I was with Minnesota, the Tigers were like our nemesis," Hunter said. "We wanted to really play these guys well. We had some great games. We fought. And now I'm a Tiger. I'm on the opposing side, so I know how those guys feel over there. But at the same time, I'm loyal, I'm committed to the Tigers and I'm going to do what I have to do to get on the field."
Hunter batted second in the Tigers' lineup both Monday and Wednesday. He went 2-for-5 in the season opener. Hunter has had decent success against his former club since leaving, batting .305 with six homers and 19 RBI prior to Wednesday.
Perhaps the Twins aren't so happy to see their former center fielder back in the American League Central.
"Torii likes to play against us and he gets excited," Minnesota skipper Ron Gardenhire said. "He's game on, man. I don't like having to face him too much. He's hit the ball well against us, which he has against a lot of teams. He brings another element to their baseball team."
That team is one that was already pretty good before Hunter joined. Now with the addition of the veteran outfielder and the return of Victor Martinez, who missed 2012 with an injury, the Tigers are once again heavily favored to win the AL Central. Hunter is currently hitting in front of Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Martinez in Detroit's lineup.
As good as those three are on the field, Hunter said they're just as good in the clubhouse. And Hunter should know, as he's established a reputation over the years as a team leader in the locker room.
"When I walked in the clubhouse, there's no big-time guys," Hunter said. "Miguel Cabrera, he'd won the Triple Crown, which I haven't seen nobody do that with my eyes. And he won the Triple Crown, but he's the most down to earth, big fun. Big Baby, we call him. He has so much fun. He's laughing. Prince Fielder is the same way. It's just a good group of guys. . . .
"I'm excited to be a part of this clubhouse, this organization."
Hunter will turn 38 this July, his 17th season in the majors. His major league debut back in 1997 seems like a different lifetime, although Hunter still remembers it well.
He also recalls his first career big league home run, which came on April 15, 199 against, ironically enough, the Tigers.
"I hit my first major league home run there. Now I'm with the Tigers. Probably finish my career with the Tigers. You never know," Hunter said. "So I hit my first and possibly my last home run with the Tigers, so there's some history there and that's why I came here to play."
But there was another, bigger reason why Hunter signed with Detroit. The Tigers give the veteran center fielder his best chance at winning an elusive World Series, something he's yet to cross off his career achievements. On a team filled with plenty of offensive talent, Hunter is no longer the biggest name on the roster.
Now a savvy veteran, though, Hunter knows his individual numbers aren't what matter most.
"He's learned over the years that the biggest thing is about the winning part now," Gardenhire said. "He's played a lot of (years), he's made his money, and he still loves the game. But now he's trying to find that ring."
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