You can forgive experienced baseball observers, whether they live in Minnesota or elsewhere, if they want to wait and see more from this year’s so-far-dynamic version of the Twins. Yet the American League Central leaders (by a mile or so), and one of the game’s best teams statistically, have won over one person who should be skeptical as anyone.
OK, Torii Hunter actually works for the team as a special assistant to baseball operations. If you’re familiar with the dynamic Hunter, though, you know that honesty is his brand. And honestly, he likes what he sees.
“I think this team has the capability, just like the Yankees have capability, the Astros, the Red Sox, to win it,” Hunter said in a recent telephone interview. “It’s an exciting time in Minnesota right now. We haven’t had it in a while. I definitely think fans are embracing it.”
Since the Twins won it all in 1991, their second title in five years, they have qualified for the postseason seven times. Counting the 2017 AL wild-card game as a “series,” they have posted a 1-7 record in playoff series, leading to rather dispiriting Octobers; their one win came over the A’s in the 2002 AL Division Series. Five of those losses (the ALDS in 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010, plus the ‘17 wild-card game) came to the Yankees.
Hunter, who played for those ‘03 and ‘04 Twins, lives in Texas, spent time with the Twins during spring training and visits the franchise’s minor-league affiliates while staying in touch with big-league players like centerfielder Byron Buxton, who is enjoying a rebound season after a terrible 2018. From his observations and communications, Hunter believes that a change in the manager’s office, from Hall of Famer Paul Molitor to rookie skipper Rocco Baldelli, has played a significant role.
“Baldelli is bringing a different culture,” Hunter said. “He’s a fun guy, a quiet guy. He lets you play the game. He understands the new millennial.”
Even when he played, Hunter was a Renaissance Man, and he has expanded his interests in retirement. He owns a share of a restaurant, Tender Smokehouse, which has two locations in Texas. And just last week, he announced his involvement in a new charitable initiative, the Still Got Game Foundation, which is bringing together former athletes and business leaders that will promote social change. The executive board features Hunter, former Met and Yankee (among many others) LaTroy Hawkins and former Yankee (among many others) Kenny Lofton, and the foundation will be run by Melissa Persaud, who worked for the Players Association from 2000 until 2018.
“I just feel like most players, when they leave the game, they kind of get away from helping,” Hunter said. “You can still help, but not on that larger scale anymore. I definitely think there’s work to be done.”
The foundation will host its first fundraising event, a celebrity poker tournament July 7 in Cleveland, two days before the All-Star Game is held there. Lofton, the beloved former Indian, will host and Hunter will join famous folks like Sandy Alomar Jr., Carlos Baerga, Bobby Bonilla and actor Charlie Sheen. A portion of the proceedings will go to Cleveland Metropolitan School District, as the foundation will target several different causes. Hunter’s pet cause is financial literacy.
“I definitely think it’s vital that our youth learn financial literacy,” Hunter said. “In real life, it’s knowing the importance of paying off your credit card in full every month so you don’t pay the interest. Something as simple as that, they don’t teach that in school.”
In discussing the Twins, Hunter described veteran designated hitter Nelson Cruz, signed last offseason, as the team’s “Shaolin monk.” Hunter has the time to serve a similar role to young ballplayers as well as youngsters of all types. And in October, it appears he’ll be particularly invested in his Twins, to see if they can do if his predecessors couldn’t.
Let’s catch up on Pop Quiz questions:
From Chris Gannon of Scotch Plains, NJ: The 1973 film “Bang the Drum Slowly” features real footage of a tarp being pulled onto a field during an All-Star Game. Name the ballpark where this took place.
From Frank Novellino of Jackson, NJ: What future Baseball Hall of Famer guest starred in a 1960 episode of “Colt .45”?
Mo Vaughn, former Met and more memorably the 1995 AL Most Valuable Player, has welcomed another former AL MVP, Frank Thomas, (1993 and 1994), into his MVP Collections, a men’s big and tall clothier.
“We’ve been friends since college,” Vaughn said, in a telephone interview, of him and Thomas. “We played against each other in the Cape Cod League and then all of our professional careers. Him being a Hall of Famer, on FOX, he’s the type of person that MVP can benefit coming in with. We were very fortunate to get him.”
Now 51, Vaughn said, “I’m a baseball fan,” and he showed off his comedy tool when asked about the Mets, with whom he ended his career rather ignominiously.
“They’ve had their struggles over the years,” Vaughn said. “I used to think it was just me. It wasn’t.”
Your Pop Quiz answers:
RFK Stadium in Washington.
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