November 17, 2012 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Torii Hunter and Detroit Tigers are the right match

Detroit -- It didn't take long for Tigers owner Mike Ilitch to know he'd found the right match for his team in free agency.

"Abouttwo and a half steps," Ilitch laughed Friday, sitting next to his newest outfielder, Torii Hunter, at an introductory news conference at Comerica Park. "He came flying in the door of my office. He didn't walk in, he almost trotted in. Big smile on his face."

Friday, they were both smiling, of course, with Hunter signed, sealed and hand-delivered to Detroit, where he's talking boldly about being the final piece to a championship puzzle. And the 83-year-old Ilitch was left shaking his head, trying to recall a player who had made this quick of an impression on him in all his years as a professional sports owner.

"Well," he told me after Friday's news conference, "you don't meet many guys like him."

But when you do, and the feeling appears to be mutual, there's no need to waste time with courtship, not at this stage of the game. Clearly, that was the case with Hunter and the Tigers, who might as well have flown to Las Vegas and gotten hitched the way they were talking Friday.

Hunter, 37, had his agent, Larry Reynolds, let Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski know Detroit was his No. 1 choice last week. Then he called and invited himself to town for a job interview over the weekend. Tuesday, he met with the Tigers' brass, had a long lunch with manager Jim Leyland — "He's a funny old man," Hunter laughed — and then, on his way out the door, left little doubt as to his intentions.

Said Hunter: "I told (Dombrowski) to his face, 'I wanna be a Tiger. I want to win a World Series. … Let's get it done today.'"

So they did. Just like that.

"It's just one of those situations where (it felt like), 'I've known this guy for 20 years,'" Ilitch said. "You get people like that where, right away, you're comfortable. I guess that happens in the dating world, right?"

Love at first sight

I guess so, and there are those in the Tigers organization who'll tell you Ilitch has never been more smitten with a player. Trust me, it shows. The owner raved not just about Hunter's baseball talents — a four-time All-Star, a nine-time Gold Glove winner, and so on — but also about his character and his extensive charity work.

"The thing that impressed me in that time we spent together is he cares about everybody," Ilitch said. "He cares about poor people. The first thing we started talking about was the conditions in Detroit, and he wants to help."

Surely, he will while he's here. Hunter and his wife, Katrina — "Thank you for bringing your husband," Ilitch told her Friday as he handed her a bouquet of flowers — have invested lots of time and money in the Torii Hunter Project, helping families in need — and particularly children — the last several years.

Hunter, whose son will play football at Notre Dame next fall, has been honored by MLB with the prestigious Branch Rickey Award and by the players' association with the Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award. Last year, he was the Angels' nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award for humanitarian contributions.

But it's the contributions in the Tigers lineup and in the clubhouse where he'll earn that eight-figure salary, filling a void the team simply couldn't from within.

He'll play right field, where Brennan Boesch flopped last season, buying time for top prospects Avisail Garcia and Nick Castellanos to develop. That'll immediately improve the Tigers' defense, and it'll add another proven bat in the order — Hunter hit .313 last season (.340 against lefties) with 16 homers and 92 RBIs — likely in the No. 2 hole ahead of newly crowned MVP Miguel Cabrera.

Another leader

And then there are the intangibles Hunter brings. Much was made of the Tigers' too quiet clubhouse this past season, particularly with Victor Martinez absent while rehabbing a torn ACL. Leyland, the day after the Tigers' season ended in a World Series sweep, was talking about needing to "get that right guy with the right heartbeat."

That was a subject of conversation at dinner Wednesday at the league meetings in Chicago, too, as Dombrowski sat with a couple of owners and former managers Tony La Russa and Joe Torre, talking about Hunter, among others.

"One of the most difficult things in baseball to find are leadership qualities," Dombrowski said. "Guys in the clubhouse that lead not only by playing, because we have a lot of guys like that. But guys that can also give you that extra energy because of how they handle things and they're not afraid to say things to people."

Dombrowski says he's adding two of those guys for next season, with Martinez returning and now Hunter, who figures to be the perfect mentor for budding star Austin Jackson. Not surprisingly, Hunter said his pal Martinez was texting him non-stop Friday.

But he already knew what Martinez was about. With Ilitch, he'd only heard stories from others, including Prince Fielder, whom he spoke to last weekend.

"But when I met with Mr. I on Tuesday, just shaking his hand, I saw the fire in his eyes," Hunter said. "That's all he talked about was winning. That encouraged me. Everybody knows I want to win. …

"This is my last stand. One last push. I'm all in. And just to hear him talk, he fired me up. That's why I came over here, because this organization is definitely about winning. And that's all I care about."

As odd couples go, these two sure do make sense together.

john.niyo@detnews.com

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Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski, left, and team owner Mike Ilitch, right, are all smiles as new Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter buttons up his jersey. / John T. Greilick/Detroit New
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