My defining memory of Torii Hunter’s baseball career comes from the 2002 All-Star Game, when he robbed Barry Bonds of a home run. Bonds was in the middle of four straight seasons of destroying space-time, but Hunter was pretty darn good too, finishing sixth in the AL MVP race and winning his second of nine straight Gold Gloves. And for one swing at least, Hunter was on top.
Torii Hunter retired today, after completing one final feel-good season in Minnesota.
Right after the Twins were about to be contracted in 2001, Hunter became the heart and soul of a fun-ass group of players that make you go “Oh yeah, I liked that guy!” They had Jacque Jones, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Cory Koskie. They had LaTroy Hawkins. This was the team that eventually produced Johan Santana! They and the Oakland A’s made up the loveable, rag-tag group of early 2000s AL contenders, always falling short to the Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels, but putting up a worthy fight in the process.
Hunter had a long and productive career, playing 17 seasons with all but the last effective. He’s not a serious candidate to make the Hall of Fame—although much worse players have made it there—but nine Gold Gloves (seventh most among outfielders all-time), five All-Star appearances, and 2,452 hits make for the résumé of an all-time great of one kind or another.
Of course, there’s the bigoted side of Hunter to consider as well. Three years ago Hunter hid behind Christianity to say, “It’s not right” to have a gay teammate in the locker room. Last year, Hunter recorded an anti-gay radio ad for an anti-gay Arkansas gubernatorial candidate, saying, “Asa is committed to the principles we hold dear, like a strong faith in God, equal justice for all, and keeping marriage between one man and one woman.” When a reporter had the temerity to ask Hunter about his beliefs, Hunter called him a “prick” four times. Hunter said black Latin American baseball players are “imposters.”
Hunter brought me great joy on the baseball field. There are few things as fun as paying $10 for bleacher seats and watching a player of Hunter’s caliber in his prime patrol the outfield like a free safety. But he also made baseball a less accepting place, and outside of baseball he worked to elect a candidate whose campaign was explicitly based on a platform of denying gay people rights.
When Hunter was asked if he would ever answer questions from reporters about his anti-gay beliefs, he had this to say:
No I mean, nah. There’s nothing to talk about. You already know, so why keep talking about it. I said it? It is what it is. No, I’m not going to talk about it if you bring it up. It’s not even baseball related. We can do that later, when I retire, then I’ll tell you everything.
Hopefully, now that Hunter is retired, he’ll tell us everything. Hopefully “everything” will be that he was wrong; that he was scared; that leaders of his faith were on the wrong side of this human rights issue; that if he could do it all over again he would’ve used his role as a leader in the clubhouse and a respected veteran to fight for inclusion and equality; or even just that he was caught up in an issue larger than himself, and that as a ballplayer he wasn’t quite sure what to do.
More likely than not, though, he won’t, and we’ll be left to ponder for the umpteenth time how to reconcile the fact that some of our favorite athletes are some of our least favorite people. In that way, Hunter is little different than the loving grandpa who forwards racist chain e-mails or the childhood friend who says uncomfortable things during once-a-year reunions. Great people do and say bad things, and awful people do and say good things. Athletes are no different.
Torii Hunter was a great baseball player with a seemingly good heart who actively hurt people. It’s a complicated legacy: worse than some and better than many.