I n 1997, when I was playing Double-A ball, I shared a car with my teammate, Armann Brown. It was a rental. It cost $6.99 a day. It was a Geo Prizm.
We also shared an apartment. It was a rental. It cost $6.99 a day. It was a Geo Prizm.
We couldn’t afford a $19-a-day hotel room because we had just broken Spring Training and we hadn’t gotten paid yet. We opened the regular season with a seven-game homestand. But until we got that paycheck, we had nowhere to stay. After each game, we’d sit in the car and wait for everybody else to leave the stadium. Then we’d drop the Prizm seats down and sleep right there in the parking lot.
If you remember the Geo Prizm, it wasn’t a big car. To call it a “compact” car would be generous. There wasn’t close to enough room for my 6-foot-2 body to stretch out, but Armann and I made it work.
We didn’t have a place to shower, but we had a clubhouse guy who knew our situation, and he’d come in early each morning and let us into the facility so we could clean up. Then we’d leave the ballpark before anyone else got there, drive around for a little and hang out at the mall to kill time. When it was time to report to the stadium for that night’s game, we’d roll up like we hadn’t just been there showering a few hours earlier, as if we had a place to stay and we were just getting in, like everybody else.
That was a tough time — a time when I started to lose faith, and I seriously considered quitting baseball.
That next week, a saving grace: Our team — the New Britain, Connecticut, Rock Cats — went on a road trip. Six games in seven days. On the road, hotels were paid for. And while we were on that road trip, we finally got paid. So when Armann and I got back to New Britain, we upgraded from the Geo Prizm to a hotel called The Hawthorne Inn. It was terrible. But it had a shower and a continental breakfast, so we felt like we had it made.
After we got out of that Geo Prizm, things turned around for me a little bit on the field, too. I wasn’t setting Double-A on fire or anything, but I was having a decent enough season. That August, my manager, Al Newman, called me into his office.
“Torii, you’re going to the Major Leagues.”
I didn’t believe him. He was a jokester — a big-time prankster.
“Maaan, get outta here,” I said, and I just turned around and walked out of his office.
I got a few steps into the hallway when he came running out of his office and chased me down. He grabbed me from behind, spun me around and grabbed me by both shoulders.
“Torii, I’m serious … You’re going to the big leagues!”
I broke down and cried tears of joy right there in the hallway. Just a few months earlier, I was waking up with car seat imprints on my cheek every morning and sneaking showers in the clubhouse, ready to quit baseball. Now, I was heading to The Show.
I went back to The Hawthorne Inn, packed my bags, and the next day, I was in Baltimore to join the Twins at Camden Yards and play the Orioles.
It was my first time ever in a big league stadium — I’d never even been to a game. But while the thrill of walking through the tunnel into the stadium and finding the visitors clubhouse was everything I dreamed it would be, my first time on the field in a Major League game was not at all what I imagined.
It was the ninth inning. Our manager, Tom Kelly, looked down the bench at me and said, “You’re gonna go run for Terry (Steinbach) if he gets on.” I grabbed a helmet, thinking, Man, okay … let’s go!
So Terry gets on base, and Tom says, “Alright, Kid. You’re up!” And in front of a sold-out crowd of 50,000-plus, a 22-year-old, nervous Torii pops up out of the visitors dugout on the third-base line and jogs over to first base to run for Terry Steinbach.
“Hey,” I say to Terry. “I’m pinch running for you.”
He just glares at me and shakes his head. “No you’re not …”
“Uhh, yeah, I’m pinch running for you. Tom Kelly told me to run for you.”
“No … you’re not.”
He turns away from me and looks out onto the field. I look back across the diamond at Tom Kelly in the dugout, and he just shrugs his shoulders and throws his hands up like, Sorry, kid, I can’t help you …
So I’m standing out there on an island, looking up at the crowd. There were so many people, but I couldn’t see one face. They all just blended together. They were yelling things like, “Hey rookie! Get off the field!” and “You don’t know what you’re doing! Go back to Double-A!” It felt like I was out there for 10 minutes. I didn’t know what to do.
Finally, Terry looks back at me and says, “I’m just kidding, kid … have fun!”
I look back at the dugout, and Tom Kelly and the whole bench is cracking up. They planned the whole thing.
Standing there on first base, I looked around the infield. Cal Ripken at third. Mike Bordick, whom I loved, at short. I was standing next to Rafael Palmeiro at first base. I saw Jeffrey Hammonds, one of my favorites, in the outfield. I’m playing against these guys, I thought. It was amazing.
Matt Lawton was at the plate. I took my lead off the bag, and he hit a ball to Jeff Reboulet at second base — a double-play ball. My job was to slide into second base and try to take out Bordick. I’d taken guys out at second base plenty of times in the minors, but this was a $3 million player and a gold glover — somebody I’d watched on TV. I was excited to go get him.
But when I slid into the bag, he was like a ninja. I couldn’t even touch him. I’d never seen anything like it. He completed the double play, and the game was over.
A couple of days later, the Twins sent me back down to Double-A.
That was my cup of coffee. I’d heard stories of what it was like in the big leagues, but I had never touched it. I’d never felt it. But now, I got me a little taste. It was like heaven — like paradise. Now I knew what I was fighting for.
I got called up again for a couple of weeks in 1998, when Otis Nixon got kicked in the face and broke his jaw. In 1999, I made the big-league team out of Spring Training.
This time, I told myself, You’re ready. You’re here to stay.
In my 17 years in Major League Baseball, I played with a lot of different guys. But there was no one team more special than the 2002 Twins.
I remember sitting in the clubhouse one day in Spring Training that year with David Ortiz, Corey Koskie, Doug Mientkiewicz and Jacque Jones, reading the newspaper. The Twins were coming off five straight 90-plus loss seasons, and we were supposed to get contracted that year — ripped apart and all the players dispersed to other teams in a draft. The beat writers talked about us being contracted, calling us “the best Triple-A team in baseball.”
We were a close-knit squad. These were guys I’d come up with through the Twins system, guys I’d grown up with, really. So we decided that if that was gonna be our last time playing with each other, we wanted to leave it all on the field. We went out that year with a chip on our shoulder, with an attitude. We wanted to destroy everyone.
We won 94 games that year. We won the AL Central and beat the A’s in the ALDS. We did things nobody expected us to do.
We weren’t the most talented team, but we were playing for each other. We were fighting and grinding, but we were having fun, too. That team had some characters, man. Probably none bigger than David Ortiz.
We got time for a couple of Big Papi stories?
I mean, this was back before he was “Big Papi,” but he was still the same guy. He was a comedian, and he and the guys were always pulling pranks and getting on each other.
I remember one time we were playing cards on the team plane. It was like a two-hour plane ride, and after we landed, I caught up with David and said, “Hey, how’d you do? How much did you win?”
He looked at me and said, “I got ass wood, bro.”
I looked at him like, “What? Ass wood? Like W-O-O-D?”
“Yeah, I got ass wooooood, bro.”
David was still learning to speak English (I think he’s still learning), so me and the guys looked around at each other, and I just said, “You mean you got your ass whooped? Like, W-H-O-O-P-E-D?”
And we lost it. Ass wood! We were crying. We let him have it for a while for that one.
But nothing tops the prank Koskie pulled on him.
You might have heard the “peanut butter in the underwear” story, but I’m gonna tell it anyway — at least how I remember it.
David was really messing with all of us a lot early in that 2002 season, always talking and joking and pranking. But Koskie thought it was time for payback. So in the middle of a game, he went back into the clubhouse to David’s locker and lined his underwear with peanut butter. After the game, we were all sitting in the clubhouse, and David came out of the showers, went to his locker and started getting dressed. He was talking to us — he was always talking — as he was getting dressed, so when he slid his tightie-whities on, he didn’t even realize that there was a lot of peanut butter in there. We were all just sitting there, waiting for it to hit him …
Then he put his pants on. Nothing.
Then his shirt. Then his shoes. Then his coat. Still nothing.
He started walking away, and we were like, OK, does he have peanut butter in there? Or is he just used to having stuff between his legs?
Right when he gets to the door, about 10 yards away from us, he freezes, turns and looks back …
“Yoooooou motherfuckers!” … In that signature Papi voice.
He went off. He was screaming, cursing at us, and we were literally rolling on the clubhouse floor while he got undressed and got back in the shower to clean the peanut butter out of his butt. We were like, “What took you so long to notice?! Are you used to that?!”
He still has it out for us for that one, but he had it coming. He always had us laughing in the clubhouse, whether it was him coming at us or us going at him. That’s what that team was like. That’s what made it so special. That’s why we became winners. We went from being called “the best Triple-A team in baseball” before the season, to “the team that saved baseball” after.
That season set the tone for the rest of my career. That team taught me about the power of chemistry and camaraderie, and from that point on, that’s what I tried to bring to every organization I played for.
These are the things I reflect on today. It’s kind of weird to know that Spring Training is starting in a few weeks — the first Spring Training since I can remember where I’m not gearing up for another season. So I think about those memories that made my career so special.
I think about Papi’s peanut-buttered drawers. About that 2002 squad. Back to that Geo Prizm and wanting to quit. All of those good times, but also those hard times that weed out the weak-minded and reward those who make adjustments and learn from their failures.
I also think about all the guys I learned from along the way. Guys like Matt Lawton, LaTroy Hawkins, Eddie Guardado and Frankie Rodriguez, who took care of the 22-year-old kid who came up to the big leagues and didn’t know anybody. They showed me the ropes. Guys like Paul Molitor, who taught me what to look for in a pitcher to decipher what pitch was coming — different arm angles, grips, glove positions. Little things you can’t pick up on unless you’ve played and put sweat and dirt on those spikes.
Guys like Kirby Puckett, whom I learned so much from just by watching the way he carried himself. How he’d walk into and out of the stadium, and he’d say hi to everybody. Security guards. Vendors. Media. Fans. He shook their hands and knew their names. He was a star, and he still took the time to do this, every day. He never took one day for granted and he always had a smile and positive energy to lift up his teammates and make them laugh.
Then he would go out and try to destroy his opponent.
Without even knowing it, he taught me to treat people how you want to be treated — to love like you want to be loved. And that you could do that and have fun, but still be a killer on the field. I never forgot that.
I think about when this 19-year-old kid named Mike Trout came on the scene in Anaheim and first made me feel like one of the old guys. How he had all the physical tools, but he also wanted to listen and learn. When I’d get to the stadium and walk into the clubhouse, he’d be right there next to my locker, ready to get some info. He reminded me of myself, because I always wanted information. I talked to him about finances, the media, on-the-field stuff, getting him a girlfriend … whatever.
Now, he’s taking all that and running with it, and he’s one of the best players, if not the best, in baseball. Not because of me, but because he’s got everything it takes. I just tried to help him along however I could, like Paul Molitor, Kirby Puckett and the guys helped me. You can never pay those guys back. You just give back to the game by passing on that knowledge.
I think about Andre Dawson. He probably doesn’t even know it, but he’s the reason I played baseball.
I was a football kid. I didn’t want to watch baseball. But when I was nine years old, my grandaddy sat me down every day after school and we watched the Cubs on WGN. I’m sitting there thinking, Turn the football game on! Or anything else … But my granddaddy played baseball, and though I didn’t know it at the time, he was teaching me a craft.
I watched Andre Dawson hit a home run one day. Then another the next. And another two days later. He hit 49 home runs that year, and I probably saw every one of them. Watching him, I wanted to be like him. I threw like him. I had the leg kick like him. I even had the Jheri curl like him.
That’s the reason I played baseball. Because of Andre Dawson and the Cubs. Because my granddaddy sat me down and made me watch.
I look back and think about the fans, whether it’s from Minnesota, Los Angeles or Detroit. I think about that roar you hear when you make a great play or get a big hit. The sound of so many voices chanting Torii! Torii! Torii! … There’s no greater feeling than that. That will be one of the things I miss most about this game. That adrenaline rush. That roar. You can’t experience that anywhere else in this world.
I think about my older brother, Taru. When I was living in that Geo Prizm and ready to quit baseball, I called him. He told me straight up, “You can’t be a quitter. That’s not the Hunter family. We keep grinding. We keep going.”
I think about my wife, Katrina. I called her, too, and told her I wanted to come home. And she wanted me home, but she also wanted me to pursue my dream. She’s a strong woman who tries to lift her husband up. She told me to stick it out. Don’t quit. See how the year goes and we can talk about the future after the season.
And the rest is history.
Without them pushing me, I might have given up and missed out on everything. That 2002 team. The fans. Papi, Koskie, Doug, Jacque and all the guys. Instead, almost 20 years later, another Spring Training is almost here, and this time, I’m chillin’, thinking about how blessed I am to have played this game as long as I did.
And because of that, I’m at peace saying goodbye to the game — for now — and ready for whatever comes next.