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SEASON OPENERS FOR DODGERS AND ANGELS

The halo still fits for Hunter in Minnesota

March 31, 2008|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Angels open the 2008 season tonight in the Metrodome, and new center fielder Torii Hunter, who grew up in Minnesota's organization and spent nine years with the Twins, has no interest in turning the four-game series into a homecoming party.

"I'm with a new squad; this is my team," said Hunter, who signed a five-year, $90-million deal with the Angels in November. "I'm not here to be recognized; I'm here to cause havoc. I'm on the other side now. I loved the Twins, but I'm the enemy now."

Yeah, right.

Try telling that to the 46,000 fans who, when Hunter steps into the Metrodome batter's box tonight for the first time in something other than a Twins uniform, will probably rise in unison and produce a thunderous ovation that shakes the creaky building to its core.

"Just guessing, but the first at-bat, they'll rock the house," Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Second at-bat, it'll be a little less, and by the end of the game, when we're supposed to get him out, 'Arrrrrrgh!' I think he was pretty well-liked here, and I wouldn't think that would change."

Hunter was more than well-liked. He was beloved, a star with personality and pizazz, a megawatt smile and a glove that shined just as bright.

He was a pillar in the community and the clubhouse, the guy who took the face-of-the-franchise baton from Kirby Puckett and held it easily, comfortably, until his distinguished run with the Twins came to an end.

After severing ties with Minnesota and signing the richest contract in Angels history, Hunter would drive around the area near his home in Texas over the winter or lie in bed at night, and it would hit him.

"I was like, man, I can't believe I'm no longer with Minnesota -- I was with that organization since I was 17 years old," Hunter said. "It's like leaving home.

"Once you leave mama's house, you always think about home. Then it hits you five years later, 'I'm away from home, I'm grown, I don't need mom anymore.' But that first year, you miss mama, you're homesick. I'm pretty sure I'm going to miss Minnesota."

And Minnesota is going to miss him. Hunter was a middle-of-the-order force for the Twins, averaging 25 home runs and 90 runs batted in the last seven seasons, and a defensive whiz, winning seven straight Gold Glove awards, the most recent of which he will receive in a pregame ceremony Tuesday night.

Minnesota still has some middle-of-the-order punch with Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Delmon Young, but starting in center field will be Carlos Gomez, a speedy 22-year-old acquired from the New York Mets in the Johan Santana deal, a player with potential but only 58 games of big league experience.

"It'll be weird to see him in that other dugout, because every day I've been in the big leagues, he's been on my team," Morneau said of Hunter. "When he had all those negotiations going on, I tried to talk him into staying with us. I wanted him to stay."

Hunter, 32, was ready to go.

"Change is good," Hunter said. "It can be bad, but most of the time, it's good. And if you can change to Anaheim, one of the best teams in baseball? Everyone wants to play in that place. It's sunny, there's no dome, you're driving to the stadium and when you get there, it's still sunlight. It kind of keeps you happy."

But before playing his first regular-season home game as an Angel, Hunter must spend four days in his old stamping grounds, where the grass is fake, the sky -- well, the underside of the roof -- is permanently gray and dingy, and the air is conditioned.

Outside the dome? The forecast for today calls for freezing temperatures and an 80% chance of snow.

"Who set that up? How did that happen?" Hunter said. "I sign with the Angels and they open in Minnesota, the team I was with for 15 years? It's going to be different, but I'm glad I'm getting it out of the way early instead of going there in the middle of the season. I'm going to try my best to not be a distraction."

To that end, Hunter held a lengthy news conference after Sunday afternoon's workout in the Metrodome to address his return, so he won't be bombarded by the local media before every game of the series.

"My plan was to not make it a circus," Hunter said. "Try to get it all out of the way at once and then not talk about it any more until the end of the series."

The news conference turned into a love fest, with local media asking Hunter to reminisce and Hunter obliging.

"I didn't think it would hit me like it did," he said. "On the bus, on the way over, I guess I got kind of quiet. G.A. [Garret Anderson] asked me if I was OK. I started calling out the neighborhoods. Some of my teammates kept saying I was going to cry. But I didn't."

Hunter said he didn't know what to expect tonight.

"It'll be nice to see people, to see the fans," he said. "I'll see old Waldo out in center field, with the hard hat on. Nice to see him again.

"No, I don't think I'm going to cry. Maybe in the car afterward."

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Times staff writer Bill Dwyre contributed to this report.

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

--

ANGELS VS. MINNESOTA

Today at the Metrodome

4 p.m. PDT, FSN West, ESPN2

* Starters: Weaver (13-7, 3.91) vs. Hernandez (11-11, 4.93).

* How the Angels have fared on opening day: 25-22.

* Angels' record vs. Minnesota (2008): 6-3.

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