An Arkansan who hit more home runs than any other born in the state is hanging up his cleats. Torii Hunter announced his retirement on Monday after 19 seasons in Major League Baseball. The Pine Bluff native is a five time All-Star and won nine Gold Glove awards.
Broadcaster Phil Elson, who has called for the minor league Arkansas Travelers and the University of Arkansas Razorbacks baseball teams, said Hunter’s glove work in the 2002 All-Star game grabbed the attention of baseball fans nationwide. He robbed Barry Bonds of a home-run with a leap at the fence.
“It might be one of the greatest plays ever made in the field in All-Star game history. It was the third out of the inning and on Torii’s way back to the dugout while he’s getting a standing ovation, Bonds was waiting for him in front of the dugout to sort of jab him a little bit, he picked him up on his shoulders. It was a great moment,” said Elson.
Arkansas Baseball Encyclopedia administrator Caleb Hardwick placed Hunter among Arkansas baseball greats, in part thanks to the longevity of his career.
“Arkansas has produced a number of really great baseball players over the years but very few can be compared to Torii Hunter. He ranks right at the top with guys like Brooks Robinson, Lou Brock and Dizzy Dean in both statistics and general renown,” said Hardwick.
Robinson, Brock, and Dean are Hall of Famers. Hardwick thinks Hunter straddles the line.
“He will end up being one of these guys who is right at the border of becoming a Hall of Famer. His statistics are not quite at the level that’s generally considered Hall of Fame,” he said.
Steve Teske works with the Butler Center at the Arkansas Studies Institute and authored a baseball entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. He holds a similar sentiment on Hunter's Hall of Fame prospects.
“It depends who the competition is. A lot of other players are going out right now so he might get passed over just for that reason,” said Teske of Hunter's chances. He also noted, “when talking about baseball in Arkansas, Torii Hunter is unavoidable.”
Teske said among Arkansas-born players Hunter is 1st in home runs (353), RBIs and doubles; 2nd in runs; and 4th in hits (2,452).
Hunter is also unavoidable if talking about baseball in Minnesota, according to Phil Elson. 40 year-old Hunter began his career with Minnesota in 1997.
“Twins fans would view him in an iconic way because for a good chunk of the ‘90s the Twins were a forgotten franchise,” said Elson about the American League franchise. “They kind of disappeared off the radar. Torii helped lead them back to prominence."
Hunter played 12 of his 19 seasons with the Twins from 1997-2007 and again in his final season this year. Playing center field when he did holds a special allure for Twins fans as well, said Elson
“Hunter follows Kirby Puckett, who is one of the greatest players in franchise history like Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew.”
The role of Puckett is essential to understanding Hunter’s character and potential future in coaching, in Elson’s analysis. He said a knack for mentoring, passed on from Puckett, even touched a former Arkansas Traveler who is currently, widely considered one of the best players in all of baseball.
“When Hunter played for the Angels (’08-’12) he took Mike Trout under his wing. Trout has talked about this, as one of his best teachers of how to play the game, how to handle yourself, and to handle expectations,” said Elson.
Hunter’s guidance off the field has not been met with the near-universal acclaim his on the field performance has commanded. He stepped briefly into political arena both in 2010, 2012 and 2014 voicing opposition to homosexuality.
While playing with the Los Angeles Angles in 2010 he said black Latino players were "imposters." In 2012 he told a reporter he would be “uncomfortable” with having a gay teammate. In 2014 he voiced a radio ad for Arkansas gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson, that among many things, briefly expressed opposition to marriage rights for same-sex couples. It dominated Minnesota Public Radio's coverage of his Hunter's legacy.
North Little Rock native A.J. Burnett announced at the beginning of this season, his 17th, it is his last. He made the All-Star team for the first time in his final season, finished 31st on the all-time strikeout list, threw a no-hitter, and won a World Series game. He posted a 3.99 lifetime ERA, won 164 games and lost 157.