Ex-Tiger Torii Hunter calls it a career

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

It was an old bit, yet it was met with smiles and laughs every time Torii Hunter would mention his age — 29.

Of course, he really was 39.

Maybe he did it for the reaction. Or maybe he did it to keep from reminding himself that he was far closer to the end of his career than the beginning.

The end of that career came Monday night, when Hunter confirmed to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that he's calling it quits.

“I’ve been married to the game 23 years,” Hunter told the Star-Tribune. “I put it almost No. 1 in my life. My family kind of second. I made sacrifices for my family. And now it is time to give them more time.”

Hunter is married to his high-school sweetheart, Katrina, and he has three sons — one, Torii Jr., who plays wide receiver for the Notre Dame football team.

Hunter strongly considered retiring last winter, following a two-year stint with the Tigers — but he decided to keep playing, in large part because the Twins, the team with which he began his career and spent the wide majority of his career, wanted him back.

He signed a one-year, $10 million contract, and proved to be a perfect fit — a veteran willing to teach in a clubhouse that was largely young. The Twins, under first-year manager Paul Molitor, proved one of the surprises in baseball, though they faded late and just missed making the postseason.

He made the playoffs both seasons he was with the Tigers, though it's not what he did on the field that impressed most of his Detroit teammates and coaches.

"Torii had an outstanding career that spanned almost two decades," manager Brad Ausmus told The News. "But I will remember him more for the person and teammate that he was as opposed to the Gold Glove outfielder."

Hunter, the No. 20 overall pick out out of high school in Arkansas in 1993, played 19 seasons in the big leagues — the first 11 and last one with the Twins. He left the Twins in November 2007 for a five-year, $90-million contract, and then joined the Tigers in November 2012 on a two-year, $26-million deal.

While watching the 2012 postseason, in which the Tigers made the playoffs, Hunter decided he wanted to go to Detroit. He directed his agent to make it happen, and owner Mike Ilitch was instantly sold when he met with Hunter shortly after the Giants swept the Tigers in the World Series.

"He was the type of guy that everyone gravitated to, young player or veteran," Tigers catcher Alex Avila told The News. "He led by example and was never afraid to vocalize his leadership.

"He was a great teammate and someone I'm grateful to call my friend."

Offensively, Hunter had a fine two years in Detroit, with 17 homers and 84 RBIs the first year, and 17 homers and 83 RBIs the next.

His defense, though, had slipped noticeably, particularly in running down balls near the wall, and the Tigers decided to go a different direction. They already had up-and-coming corner outfielder J.D. Martinez in the mix, and were setting their sights on Yoenis Cespedes, who was acquired in December in a trade with the Red Sox.

In 2015, the Tigers did miss Hunter — though not for what he did on the field. They could've used his clubhouse leadership during a season that started so promising, but then unraveled, slowly at first and then rapidly later, amid a rash of key injuries. GM Dave Dombrowski was fired, and Detroit had a losing record for the first time since 2008.

"It would be nice (to have a guy like Hunter)," Nick Castellanos told The News in September. "Every locker room wants that."

For his career, Hunter finished with 2,452 hits, 353 home runs, 1,391 RBIs and 195 stolen bases. He batted .277/.331/.461. But he was best known for his defense, winning nine Gold Gloves — every year from 2001-09, when he manned center field. He transitioned to right field in 2011

He made five All-Star teams, including with the Tigers in 2013. He's considered a strong candidate to make it big as a TV sports analyst in retirement.