Wednesday, April 10, 2013

21st Century Man: Torii Hunter and the Full Circle

Can you remember where you were thirteen years ago? For some it may be a brief fraction of their existence to this point. For others, its half a life ago. Pencil me in on the list of the latter. In the summer of the year 2000, I was thirteen years of age, addicted to Mountain Dew and Playstation. I had a bleach blonde buzzcut, as was sadly kind of popular back then. Or at least that is what I tell myself. I had never been to Wrigley Field, and had never done so much as kiss a girl. The hair probably helped perpetuate the latter. But while I was looking forward to the twilight of my middle school years, Torii Hunter was coming back from a short stint in Minnesota's minor league system. I remember those awkward early teen years vividly. In equal right, I remember Torii climbing the center field wall of the Metrodome like it was yesterday.

He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. You could see his acrobatic assault on the league's home run totals nightly on Sportscenter. He was a newly minted defensive superhero, with all the swagger and brawn of anything DC or Marvel could conjure. Most of all, he wasn't a Yankee. Hunter was a Minnesota Twin. A likable, fun, young player on a team whose payroll seemed to regularly sniff the baseball poverty line. Yet like Torii's rise to Major League prominence, the low-budget Twins were about to take a strange ride to the top as well. Torii would become a piece of a team that would surprise the league for a good portion of the first decade of the 21st century.

As I grew out of my awkward phase into my more self-confident college years, Torii Hunter had worked his way into the MLB culture. He was in the midst of nine consecutive Gold Glove awards, and had multiple All-Star Game trips in his pocket. My favorite, of course, was in the 2002 mid-summer classic, when Hunter robbed the modern king of swing Barry Bonds of a home run. The game ended in a tie. It was the ordination of a new baseball superstar. Year after year the hits piled up and the fielding percentage hung in the clouds.

I suppose the feeling varies from person to person, but I believe that even in things that impress or delight us, we can become jaded. I slowly forgot about Torii Hunter. He seemed to fade into the scenery. Even with collecting  most valuable player votes, he just became the standard ballplayer to me. I was so accustomed to his high level of play, that I had just accepted his greatness and moved on. I say this in the past tense, because yesterday, that changed. While clicking my way through box scores of the day last night, I noticed a familiar name, now playing for Detroit, had hit a milestone. Torii Hunter had three base hits. The third was the 2,000th of his career. Not a hall-of-fame caliber milestone, but not pedestrian either.

I thought about the significance of 2,000 hits. How a player's longevity comes into focus. I pondered Torii's relevance on the main stage of baseball's theater. The significance of 2,000 hits wasn't necessarily just the impressive volume of successful at-bats. The number represented the year he planted his roots on the baseball landscape. To me, he is the quintessential player of his generation. He hit well, but rarely loitered around .300. Stole nearly 200 bases, but never came close to leading the league in bag thefts. Hunter was, and is, a solid baseball player. An adequate cog in the baseball machine. 

He is 37 years old now. Inching closer to retirement and striding ever further from his video-game ready, defensive wunderkind genesis. In the thirteen years hence his breakout season, much has changed in the world and in my life. Those memories of home run thievery I claim to feel like yesterday have collected dust. My adolescence shifted to adulthood. Half a life ago I was in awe of Torii Hunter. I guess now he has come full circle.

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