Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter takes the field for batting practice before… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Torii Hunter's first at-bat in Angel Stadium on Friday night was delayed by a standing ovation, which the Detroit Tigers right fielder acknowledged by waving his helmet. When Hunter took his position in the first inning, fans in the right-field bleachers rose in unison, one row of spectators holding up a large “THANK U TORII” sign.
For Hunter, who hit .286 with 105 homers and 432 runs batted in during a five-year stint with the Angels in which he was also the heart and soul of the club, it wasn't just about appreciation. It was about validation.
“It means I did my job here,” said Hunter, who singled, doubled and scored the Tigers' only run in their 8-1 loss to the Angels. “It's a testament to how I played the game, how I carried myself in public and with the fans.
“When you do what you're supposed to do and don't complain much, I think the fans, media, players and front office appreciate and respect that.”
Fans, media and players? Definitely. Front office? Not so much.
Last season, as Hunter was completing a torrid September in which he hit .345 with 27 RBIs in 29 games, Angels owner Arte Moreno told the team's radio station, “If we don't figure out a way to re-sign him, we're going to get hung, aren't we?”
The Angels left Hunter hanging. Their only offer to the nine-time Gold Glove winner, who hit .313 with 92 RBIs last season and showed, at 37, he had plenty left, was practically an insult: $5 million.
Hunter was told by team management that, because of the $42 million owed to Vernon Wells, the Angels couldn't afford to re-sign him.
Then, after Hunter signed a two-year, $26-million deal with Detroit, the Angels signed Josh Hamilton for five years and $125 million, prompting Hunter to tweet, “I was told money was tight, but I guess Arte had money hidden under a mattress. Business is business, but don't lie.”
Hunter had a chance to confront Moreno on Thursday night when he bumped into the owner at Javier's Cantina and Grill in Newport Beach, where Hunter met several ex-teammates, including Mike Trout, for dinner.
There were no fireworks.
“I shook Arte's hand, and we had a good conversation,” Hunter said. “There was no animosity. I've never had any bitterness.”
Was there irony in the fact Hunter entered Friday's game with an American League-leading .413 average while Hamilton was hitting .200 with 18 strikeouts?
“That's a hot tamale,” Hunter said, his stock answer when avoiding controversy. “I can't get caught up in that. All my focus and energy is with the Tigers, so I can't focus on the Angels. But I do care about a lot of guys there. I want them to do well. Just not this weekend.”
Hunter's popularity in Anaheim was evident Friday. When he walked into the stadium hours before the game, a half-dozen Angels players and Manager Mike Scioscia greeted him. There were chats with ushers, security guards, fans.
“I appreciate that,” Hunter said. “I have love for those guys. I miss them.”
The Angels miss Hunter too, more than they'd probably admit. They miss his grit, his fire, and a personality second baseman Howie Kendrick calls “infectious.” They miss his bat, too.
“You can't really replace Torii Hunter,” Trout said. “He's a leader on and off the field. Anything you need, he's there. He's a good guy to sit down and talk to. What he did here, the way he carried himself and interacted with fans, it was special to me and the fans.”