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KURT STREETER

Torri Hunter is the best thing in L.A. baseball

The Angels outfielder isn't the biggest or most powerful, but he has character.

June 21, 2009|KURT STREETER

All right, all right. So he's not the biggest, baddest and most powerful. So he doesn't have the glossy name he'd have if his first years had been spent in Boston or New York, or even Chavez Ravine.

He doesn't have dreadlocks and an enigmatic, flaky-but-mostly lovable personality. Or a jersey number like 99. Or even a single season with more than 40 home runs.

But he does have this: character. The only cheating he's ever been accused of is cheating others out of home runs with a jump and a glove.

And this: During this season of baseball in L.A. and its environs, a season of anguish, broken hearts and never-say-never excitement typified by Saturday's 6-4 Dodgers win over the Angels, Torii Hunter is simply the best thing going.

Among our mega-region's two big league teams, nobody has been better. He's been so impressive, been such an important cog for a squad that has suffered the most human of stings, that a real case can be made for Hunter as current American League MVP.

Honest, did you think we'd arrive here? There was a time, shortly after the Angels signed Hunter two winters ago, when a loud cry came from certain sections of Anaheim fandom: The Angels just signed 32-year-old Torii Hunter for five years at $18 million per? What a crock! He's a good player and decent guy, the Internet-emboldened ranting went, but he's no A-Rod or Miguel Cabrera or Miguel Tejada, to name just three players heavily pined for back then.

Where, I ask, are the naysayers now?

All Hunter has done is help lead the Angels to their best regular season ever; play admirably and as advertised in what would become a stinging playoff loss; work his tail off in the off-season; and then come back with a 2009 performance that up to now has been sterling.

The numbers tell part of the story. After Saturday's game, an unusual struggle in which he went hitless, Hunter led the Angels in slugging, on-base percentage, RBIs and homers, with 16. He's now hitting .318, just off the team lead. Not surprisingly, his hitting compares favorably with baseball's leaders in every category this season. A-Rod, eat your cheating heart out.

Speaking of that most infamous Yankee, widely scorned as a teammate, there are some things that numbers just can't quantify. There's no way to judge the size of a player's heart, or his character, or his effect on others. But watch Hunter closely, and you can sense the unquantifiable. Watch him during batting practice -- laughing, cajoling, then growing serious while pounding lasers to right. Watch him play his Gold Glove defense, leaping above walls to rob homers and into walls to rob extra-base hits.

Better yet, watch him in the clubhouse, near his locker, a magnet for other players. The baseball season -- 162 games, long flights, a new city every few days -- is as thick and tough a slog as exists in sports. Most react to the sameness with spasms of grumpiness, slumpy days when they'd rather hide under a heavy rock than go to work. But Hunter somehow comes to the clubhouse each day with the giddiness of a fresh-faced intern.

"Consistency," says Angels pitcher John Lackey, "I've never seen anybody like this guy -- everyday with a smile and a laugh. Every day ready to lead."

"Professionalism," says third-baseman Chone Figgins. "He's the one who talks to everyone on this team -- not just about baseball. It's about how do you go through your life. He's a rock."

Even players on other teams notice. "He's an unbelievable man," says Dodgers second baseman Orlando Hudson, recalling his own rookie season and going on his first road trip to Minnesota, where Hunter was already well established. Even though they weren't teammates and were just getting acquainted, Hunter made sure to take Hudson to dinner -- a welcome-to-the-big leagues thing. "It was just him telling me what to expect, what to watch out for, how this is something none of us could take for granted."

That's the key: taking nothing for granted. He still thinks of himself as a poor kid from Pine Bluff, Ark., who scuffled through the minor leagues and is capable of getting cut for loafing. "It's a blessing being here," says Hunter, 33 and spiritual in the same classy manner as fellow Arkansan Derek Fisher. "That's why I'm always looking to get better. It never stops. This off-season I worked on my balance and my swing. When I was a kid, growing up the way I did, I didn't have a private coach and all that. I had to learn by just watching. So I'm always still trying to learn stuff from guys. I have to be honest, I still feel like I'm learning how to hit."

He pauses. He doesn't want to talk more about himself. Doesn't care to dwell on the fact he's not among the leaders in the fans' All-Star vote. All he wants to talk about is his team getting over the playoff hump. "Gold gloves, All-Star, right now I'm not thinking about that," he says. "Right now I just want that big World Series ring. That's all I want, for us to win."

Imagine Alex Rodriguez telling you this -- and you walking away believing him. Imagine A-Rod or Miguel Cabrera leading this team through the stark tragedy of Nick Adenhart's death, through a wobbly and injury-riddled start, and finally getting them to where they could win seven out of eight and shadow first place. Hard to picture, right?

So yeah, all right, Torii Hunter isn't the biggest, baddest or most powerful. But right now he's the best thing going in L.A. baseball, and maybe the best thing going in the all of baseball.

Not that he cares. He just wants a World Series ring. Imagine that.

--

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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