April 28, 2009 in Sports

Hunter leads on, off field

Kevin Baxter Los Angeles Times
 

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Here’s a hypothetical question: Would it be easier to sneak past Torii Hunter with a hanging curve or without saying hello?

The answer is neither.

At the plate, the Los Angeles Angel outfielder has made a habit of punishing just about any pitch that comes within reach. And in the clubhouse, where Hunter’s outsized personality stands out on a team about as colorful as a snowdrift, no one gets by without him asking, “Hey, how ya doing?”

But this spring Hunter has taken both the clubhouse charm and the batter’s box harm to new levels. And not surprisingly, they’re related.

A month into his second season with the Angels, Hunter says he is starting to feel more comfortable, and that has made him more comfortable on the field.

“I am, man. I promise I am,” he says. “Even though my character, my personality, is outgoing and everything like that, I didn’t want to step on any toes (last year).

“So when I got here I was kind of laid-back. I wanted to please my teammates, the fans and everything. But this year it’s a totally different ballgame. I feel like I’m a part of the family. I’m having a lot of fun…”

And that’s paid off for the Angels, who have seen the normally slow-starting Hunter get off to a torrid beginning, batting .338 – 65 points above his career average for April – while leading the team in home runs (seven) and RBIs (14) heading into an eight-game trip that opens tonight in Baltimore.

That hasn’t led to many wins, since the Angels hit the road in last place in the American League West. But you can’t blame that on Hunter. His .754 slugging percentage is second-best in baseball and his home-run total had him tied for second. Plus all seven have been clutch, either tying a game, putting the Angels ahead or pulling them to within a run.

“Torii right now is swinging the bat great,” manager Mike Scioscia says. “This isn’t something you have to explain. This is something Torii has the capability of doing.”

Hunter has shown leadership in other ways, too. In the difficult days following pitcher Nick Adenhart’s death in a traffic accident, Hunter was among those who stepped forward, baring his soul to the public while grieving in private with his teammates. Then when he and pitcher Darren Oliver were stranded in Texas after their commercial flight was canceled, Hunter chartered a private jet so neither would miss that night’s game.

“Being a clubhouse leader – being a leader, period – is among your peers,” he says. “I don’t come in and say ‘I’m the leader in the clubhouse. This is my house.’ I just be me.

“I lead because I have experience. I’m a veteran. When guys come to me and they talk to me, I know they respect me. If guys come to me or if I see them down, I go and tell them my experiences because I had a lot of failures in my life. If you’re failing, I’ve been there. Let me tell you what I did to get out of it.”

But truth be told, Hunter’s turnaround – he had 21 home runs and 78 RBIs last year – is a product of more than simply a new inner peace.

Late in spring training, Hunter changed his approach at the plate, and that has made a huge impact, says hitting coach Mickey Hatcher.


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