ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Torii Hunter wanted to end his playing career with the Los Angeles Angels. General manager Jerry Dipoto had other ideas, electing not to offer him a contract extension at age 37 after he batted .313 with 16 home runs and 92 RBIs in 2012.
The Halos instead went after free agent and longtime Angels nemesis Josh Hamilton, signing the 2010 AL MVP to a five-year, $125 million deal in December — a month after Hunter inked a two-year, $26 million contract with Detroit.
Through the first 14 games of the season, Hamilton was batting .200 with eight RBIs — one fewer than Hunter, who returned to Angel Stadium on Friday with the defending AL champion Tigers for a the start of a three-game series batting .413.
“It’s good to be back home,” Hunter said. “This was home for five years. I’ve built relationships here, and that’s something you can’t take away. I mean, I’m here on business, but I do have love for the Angels fans and the Angels organization.
“I’m picking up right where I left off and carrying it over. Last year I hit pretty well in the second half, and I’m just doing the same thing now. I cut my swing down like I did last year and I’m making good contact.”
The four-time All-Star, who turns 38 on July 15, had been the face of the Angels’ franchise along with Jered Weaver since signing a five-year, $90 million contract in November 2007. So his departure has been an adjustment period for everyone.
“It was tough, man, because everybody knew I wanted to stay,” said Hunter, who entered this series two home runs shy of 300. “I said publicly that I wanted to be here and hopefully get something done. But it just didn’t work out, and I was told something totally different. But that’s fine. That’s the business side of baseball. I’ve been through it before.
“But there was no resentment. There was never that,” he emphasized. “I mean, I still love the fans here and my (former) teammates and the organization. I had a blast here. So, resent what?”
Hunter had spurned a three-year, $45 million offer from the Minnesota Twins, the team he began his big league career with in 1997, to come to Anaheim and join a club that was coming off its third division title in a four-year span.
“I grew up in Minnesota, I learned a lot about the game there, and that was my first group of fans. So I have a love for those guys there,” Hunter said. “But here, these guys adopted me and I’ve had some of the best years of my career here. It was a lot more fun — and a lot more sun. So it was definitely my favorite place.”
At the press conference announcing his arrival at the “Big A,” Hunter was so pumped up about the team’s Rally Monkey mascot that he posed with a stuffed version of the white-haired capuchin monkey — and eventually got to pose on the field with a real-life one hanging on his neck.
In Hunter’s first season with the Angels, they won a franchise-record 100 games, and he had a career-best 23-game hitting streak. He batted .286 with 105 homers and 432 RBIs over his five seasons here, helping the Halos win back-to-back AL West titles in 2008 and 2009.
“Torii is obviously an extremely charismatic guy, and I think he is very unique,” Angels slugger Mark Trumbo said. “I haven’t come across anyone else that mirrors his intensity and energy. But I also don’t think it’s fair to expect anyone to try and do that. He’s a very special case.
Hunter earned two of his nine consecutive Gold Gloves while with the Angels, putting together an errorless streak of 265 games. He also robbed opposing players of at least 35 home runs, according to the team, and passed that legacy on to protege Mike Trout — who did it four times last season en route to AL rookie of the year honors.
“Torii was a presence in the lockerroom and a presence on the team in anything he did, whether it was in the dugout, on the field,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “He was vocal, but also he brought great leadership. He mentored a lot of the young players who came into our clubhouse, and I’m sure he’s doing much of the same over there.”
The younger players Hunter left behind in Anaheim, including Trout, Mark Trumbo and Peter Bourjos, are benefiting from the experiences they shared with him.
” He plays as hard as anybody, always looks to take the extra base and never quit in a game,” Trumbo said. “He’d be as angry as anyone after a loss, even if he had a good game. And that tells you pretty quick that he cares about the team.
“When I first got called up, I was fortunate enough to be in the locker next to him and he pointed out little things here and there — what do you look for against certain pitchers in certain situations. And as a young player, you would be dumb if you don’t try and take that and apply that stuff to your own game.”
The Tigers are thrilled to have Hunter’s leadership in their clubhouse, and just as happy they don’t have to face him anymore.
“I was excited to get him because he’s a friend of mine, and we’ve been friends for a while,” Tigers ace Justin Verlander said. “It’s nice for me to have him in the lineup because it seems like him and I always had great battles. So it’s nice not to have to waste 15 pitches on every one of his at-bats.
“We’ve always had a great clubhouse since I’ve been here, but it’s always beneficial to bring in another great personality. The more guys you have like that, the more family atmosphere you have in the clubhouse.”