Hunter shows kids they can make it, too
Clemente Award nominee takes pride in helping urban youth
Torii Hunter remembers the first time he realized that his baseball career could help him do more than just entertain people on the field.It came back in 1995, when the center fielder played for the Twins' Class A Fort Myers affiliate. The team was involved in a program at a local Boys & Girls Club, which brought players to speak to groups of young kids at the facility. Hunter decided to take part one day, and it didn't take long for him to feel the impact of his presence. "I started to tell them about my life and the things I went through," Hunter said. "And the kids were looking at me like, 'You go through the same thing?' Out of 150 kids there, there were about 10 going through the same stuff as I did growing up. They would come and talk to me and I would just give them a little advice on how to get through it. And it just made you feel good that you could help somebody." Helping others became a passion for Hunter in large part due to his history. As a youngster in Pine Bluff, Ark., Hunter was witness to a life that's far different from the one he currently possesses as a Major League ballplayer. Being around gangs and dealing with the drug addictions of some of his own family members, including his father, Hunter experienced many of the same struggles as the kids that he speaks to now. "The way I grew up, it was pretty tough," Hunter said. "I've been shot at it and been the one doing the shooting. A lot of people don't realize that with me, because I was able to make a 360 in my life, not just a 180, but a complete change. "And I told myself, really I vowed to myself, that if I ever got the opportunity to help anybody that I was going to do it. That's probably one of the reasons why I'm so passionate about helping kids and helping families." It is Hunter's deep-seated desire to give back that has earned him the honor of being the Twins' nominee for the 2007 Roberto Clemente Award. The award recognizes the player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team. It is named in honor of the former Pirates outfielder whose spirit and goodwill will always be remembered. Clemente died in a plane crash while attempting to transport relief supplies to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua on Dec. 31, 1972. The winner will be announced during the World Series. Early on in his career, Hunter felt he was limited in his ability to make a significant impact outside of the baseball field. It was about 8-10 years ago when he was just starting to make his mark in the big leagues that Hunter really began to ponder his options. "I would sit up late at night and talk to my wife about what can I do to make a difference." Hunter said. "She used to tell me, 'Take your time. Remember that Rome wasn't built in a day.' So I would just sit there and try to think of different things I could do." Then in 2004 came the idea to hold a jamboree that's much like the Little League World Series, but this time, only for urban youth. It took a couple of years to get the project underway, but in 2006, the "Torii Hunter Project" officially launched and helped sponsor teams at a Little League Urban Initiative Jamboree this past May. With the help of donations from about a dozen other African-American Major League players, Hunter has seen his idea blossom. But there are still some goals that Hunter has in mind to help the program to grow. "Hopefully it will eventually get on TV, so that other kids can see that there are other African-American kids playing the game and playing it the right way," Hunter said. "That was my vision. Little League Baseball backed me, and I have to give them big ups for helping me out with that dream." Hunter's program helps promote the game of baseball to all urban children, but there is a bit more of an emphasis on young African-American kids. That's because he feels many of them have not gotten the education on just what baseball means to their own community. And it's that lack of knowledge which Hunter believes has contributed to the fact that just 8 percent of Major League players currently are African-American. "I just want kids to know that baseball is part of our heritage," Hunter said. "It seems that kids and parents today, they think basketball and football were first. They've forgotten that Hank Aaron, one of the best hitters in the game, and Jackie Robinson, a pioneer, helped stay strong for black Americans at a time when it was difficult. And I don't want them to have done it for nothing." Seeing his own name associated with such an important issue is something Hunter takes very seriously. But it's not Hunter's only foray into giving back. In the Twin Cities, Hunter is the spokesperson for the Twins Rookie League and RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) inner city youth baseball programs. Each month during the season, 40 participants of the program are personally selected by Hunter to join him for Twins batting practice at the Metrodome.
Hunter also supports Big Brother Big Sisters of the Twin Cities. He sponsors a group called "Hunter's Homies" that has allowed 20,000 economically disadvantaged youth to attend a Twins game for free since 2003. The center fielder also is a participant in Athletes In Action, a Christian-based mentoring organization, which has him meet with college baseball and softball teams, encouraging them to stay focused and find support in God.With his wife Katrina's help, Hunter has done more than just leave an impact on the game, but he has tried to give back in other ways. The two established the Torii and Katrina Hunter Foundation back in their hometown of Pine Bluff this past offseason to aide residents with their most basic needs. There is one "catch" of the program, and it's that people who receive the donations must pass on their reward by performing acts of kindness towards others. At a time when Hunter's career seems to be flourishing on the field, earning his second All-Star bid in June and coming off his sixth straight Gold Glove Award last season, the outfielder's impact in the community is also at an all-time high. And for Hunter, there could be no better reward. "I take a lot of pride in being able to help other people," Hunter said. "And just seeing the difference I can make in somebody's life, sometimes just by talking to them, is powerful. I'm glad that I can in some small way give back, because I feel blessed to be where I'm at."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.