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Change Of Fortune

New Angel Torii Hunter, who as a child had to ask neighbors for food and deal with his father's drug addiction, doesn't take $90-million deal for granted

February 17, 2008|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

PROSPER, Texas -- It seems fitting that Torii Hunter chose this burgeoning North Dallas suburb to build his dream home, a 19,900-square-foot, Mediterranean-style estate that sits on 20 acres, 3 1/2 of them covered by a lake.

Growing up five hours east of here in gritty Pine Bluff, Ark., a small city notorious for its big-city problems -- gangs, drugs, poverty, violent crime -- the Angels' new center fielder did anything but prosper, at least, economically.

Hunter's father, a Vietnam veteran, was addicted to crack cocaine and blew too many paychecks on drugs and booze, his habits eventually costing him his job as an electrician for the local railroad.

Theotis Hunter would disappear for weeks at a time, his family never knowing if he was dead or alive, and during one of those benders, Torii found his dad passed out on a crack-house floor.

Shirley Hunter struggled to pay the utilities and keep her four boys clothed and fed on an elementary school teacher's salary and a prayer.

There were days Torii and his brothers knocked on neighbors' doors, asking for food, or hid in the back of the house when bill collectors came.

Rock bottom, Hunter said, came in 1997, when he opened the season with the Minnesota Twins' double-A affiliate in New Britain, Conn.

His first-round, $450,000 signing bonus from 1993 spent -- $60,000 built an indoor practice facility for the Pine Bluff High baseball team, the rest went to support himself, his family and a child -- Hunter was broke when Twins minor leaguers broke camp.

"I didn't have money for the first month's rent, so me and my roommate slept in front of the stadium in a car -- a Geo Prizm -- for two weeks," said Hunter, who left the Twins to sign a five-year, $90-million deal with the Angels in November.

"I had no help. We couldn't afford $19 a day for a hotel room. We'd wake up in the morning, hang out in the mall all day, come to the stadium and take a shower."

Now look at him. Hunter, who will join the Angels for their first full-squad spring-training workout in Arizona on Wednesday, can bathe in any of 11 bathrooms, and he and his wife, Katrina, sleep in a large master suite that has a sunken den, fireplace and a view of the pool and Jacuzzi.

The entrance to the two-year-old, six-bedroom home, which is around the corner from former NFL star Deion Sanders' palatial estate, features a grand foyer with marble floors, Roman columns and a 40-foot-high rotunda.

There's a home theater with an 85-inch television, surround sound and leather seats, a game room with a pool table, bar, three flat-screen TVs and a trophy case, an indoor basketball court and batting cage, and a workout room with a hyperbaric chamber.

There are his-and-hers garages -- Torii's includes a burnt orange 1964 convertible Impala -- and his-and-hers offices, Torii's featuring a switch under a shelf that, when flipped, turns a bookcase into a secret door.

Down a hidden hallway, a heavy door opens to a small room with a bench and a phone.

"This is the panic room," Hunter, 32, said. "The walls are concrete, eight inches thick, that go deep into the ground, the door is bulletproof, and the phone line can't be cut.

"If we ever have a tornado or a hurricane, we'd go in here . . . but it's also from growing up in the 'hood. My upbringing has me worried about a lot of stuff, and when we first moved out here, there weren't many houses, it was kind of isolated. Safety is first."

As a teenager in Pine Bluff, Hunter carried a gun -- "For protection," he said, "not to rob anybody" -- but here in Texas, he's beginning to feel safe at home.

"Every time I drive up to the house, I look at it and thank God, because being from Pine Bluff, with all the things I've seen and gone through, to see how far I've come . . . it's kind of like a fantasy, a dream," Hunter said. "After we moved here, we really thought about what the word 'prosper' means."

Hunter was 13, in the eighth grade, when he realized his father had a serious drug problem. Theotis -- and Torii's Chicago Bulls jacket -- were missing for two weeks, and one morning both reappeared, the jacket on a chair and Theotis sleeping on a couch.

"I grabbed the jacket, went to school, raised my hand to answer a question and something fell out of the pocket -- ting, onto the floor," Hunter said. "It was a crack pipe. I picked it up real quick and told the teacher I had to use the restroom.

"I got in there, picked up the back of the toilet, wiped my fingerprints off the pipe, dropped it in the toilet and closed it up. I was in tears. I can't even explain to you how hurt I was. It was tough to look at your dad after that. You definitely look at him different."

Then there was that hellacious night in October 1994. Home after his first full pro season, Hunter found his Ford Explorer -- and his father -- were missing.

Five days later, Torii found the truck parked at a crack house.

He went in, and, seeing Theotis passed out on the floor, Torii went into a rage, throwing fists at everyone in the room.

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