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Kurt Streeter

Getting it right in center

Both local teams shopped for center fielders last winter. The Angels won the bidding for Hunter, who has been everything they hoped. The Dodgers signed Jones, who so far looks like another free-agent bust.

May 04, 2008|Kurt Streeter

'What's wrong with Andruw Jones?" an Angels outfielder asked the other day.

It was the same question many of us have been asking this young baseball season. But coming from Torii Hunter, it was a question weighted with a certain kind of ironic significance.

That's because right now, for better or worse, Hunter and Jones are linked at the hip. After forging reputations as hard-hitting, sure-gloved center fielders, both now play in Southern California.

Hunter, long of Minnesota, signed up with the Angels this winter, a deal that will swell his coffers by $90 million over the next five years. Jones, long of Atlanta, signed with the Dodgers a few weeks later. Over the next two seasons, he'll make $36 million, give or take a few hundred thousand bucks.

Back then, there was much rejoicing, baseball fans looking forward to the possibility that this little megalopolis of ours would soon be home to two of the best center fielders in the game, both at the peak of their powers.

Someone stole the script.

The sleek Hunter has been exactly what the Angels expected. He has pop in his bat, electricity in his legs and a deep well of energy that's drawing raves from fans and teammates.

Jones?

Gulp.

Literally.

By all accounts he's a good guy, well liked in the clubhouse, but Jones, 31, entered this season with an extra chin hanging from his jaw and a Goodyear tire wrapped around his gut. The Dodgers were hoping he'd be their slugger. He has only one home run and a batting average clinging to .160 like metal strips to a magnet.

Worse, we've rarely seen signs he's about to turn the corner. He steps into the batter's box with the blank, dazed look of a beaten man.

It's beginning to be a familiar pattern -- a free-agent Dodger, mired in the muck. The team is already dishing out around $15 million this year to Jason Schmidt. Schmidt had six starts last season, his first with the team. He hasn't pitched this season and may never be effective again.

Doesn't end there. Nearly $10 million goes this season to Nomar Garciaparra, who seems to pull a muscle every time he combs his hair. And a good $8 million will comfort Juan Pierre, who begins most games on the bench.

Those are some big-money whiffs, and Dodgers fans have every right to complain. Jones played last season for the Braves knowing he'd soon be signing a new deal. He had every incentive to have a banner year. Instead, he batted a career-worst .222. He slugged 27 homers, but that was 24 fewer than his career high. The trend was sloping downward, the Dodgers took a gamble, and now they're getting stung.

Adding salt to the wound is the fact that Hunter says he would have been quite happy roaming the outfield at Chavez Ravine. "I would have loved to have played there," he told me last week, readying for a game against Oakland. The Dodgers were among his off-season suitors, but they weren't quick enough to the punch. "I was all set to talk to them," he said. "We were just a few days away. Then the Angels came in and made a fantastic offer. The rest is history. I'm an Angel and it's great."

Granted, the Angels probably paid the former Twin a few million more a year than market rate. Maybe his contract is a year too long. But if teams want to win in today's baseball world, they've got to stretch. Thing is, the stretching must be done wisely, spending money on players with no glaring weaknesses and stats that are stable or moving up.

That's Hunter. Though he says he feels off-kilter, the 32-year-old center fielder is hitting .313 with four home runs and 17 RBIs. He has already won a couple of games pretty much on his own. Against the Mariners, he slugged three doubles and made a leaping catch at the outfield wall that robbed Seattle of a potential game-winning, ninth-inning home run. Against Cleveland, he slugged a walk-off grand slam.

"That's when I really felt like I was at home, like I belonged," Hunter said. He took me through it, the jolt he felt when bat met ball, the shivers that ran through his spine as he rounded the bases, the sound of the crowd, the sight of his teammates waiting at the plate. "All my new guys there. Sweet."

It hasn't taken long for these "new guys" to warm up to No. 48. "Thing about him is, he's a grinder," said Manager Mike Scioscia, echoing a common sentiment in Anaheim. "He's not only an extremely talented athlete, he grinds, works hard every day. That fits in perfectly here."

Makes perfect sense. Hunter, after all, slogged and scuffled through the minor leagues for half a decade before finding a full-time home with the Twins. Nothing was ever handed to him. He had to sweat his way to the top.

And when he did make it, finally, he flourished. Since 2000, he has twice been an All-Star and won seven Gold Gloves.

As important, in an era stuffed with shady characters and steroid cheats, Hunter developed a reputation as one of the game's good guys. Last year he won baseball's man-of-the-year award for his humility and charity work.

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