Hunter gets his team, Tigers get their man

Hunter gets his team, Tigers get their man

DETROIT -- Torii Hunter saw this day coming long before the Tigers did. He could see himself wearing the old English D. It sounds like talk in hindsight, but with Hunter, it's not hard to believe.

He could see it when he was in town with the Angels late in the regular season, his future with the Halos up in the air.

"I was scouting clubs just in case the Angels didn't bring me back," he said Friday, "and this was just the best team."

He could see it during the Tigers' run to the World Series, pulling for them to beat the Giants as American League cohorts.

He got a better picture of it when he had his agent call Tigers vice president John Westhoff and ask if they had any interest in a veteran right fielder with nine Gold Gloves, a still-productive bat and some years left in him.

"I was a little bit surprised," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said.

Once Hunter stepped off the plane, stepped into the bowels of Comerica Park on Tuesday and shook hands with owner Mike Ilitch, he knew. This was the place.

"They were sitting down at the table, and I told him to his face, 'I want to be a Tiger. I want to win a World Series. I know this is the team I want to be with. Let's get it done today,'" Hunter said. "I mean, I don't want to sit around and just wait."

It took a little longer than that, but 72 hours later, Hunter was sitting at another table at Comerica Park, again with Ilitch and Dombrowski at his side. This time, the old English D of the Tigers home jersey was on his chest, and his signature was on a two-year, $26 million contract.

"Dave and I got this deal done in less than an hour," Hunter's agent, Larry Reynolds, said of the Wednesday morning negotiation. "That's unheard of in our business."

Hunter said when the week began that he knew where he wanted to play, and he wasn't going to take long to get there. He wasn't kidding. When he talks about winning a World Series in Detroit, he's just as serious.

"You could [talk about] the Gold Gloves, the All-Stars, whatever it may be, but it's not complete," Hunter said. "Nothing's going to be more gratifying and satisfying until I win that World Series. All that stuff, I don't feel complete."

In that, Hunter and Ilitch had a common bond. Now, they have a common goal. The process of getting them on the same side was so simple, it was almost bizarre.

By any evaluation, it was different. But so is Hunter.

"You guys are in for a treat," Reynolds warned. "I'm telling you now. This is my warning. This guy is something special. I've known this guy since he was 17 years old. This is one of the best people I've ever met. Forget baseball. This is one of the best people I've ever met in my life, and you guys will see it."

The Tigers and most of Detroit have known that for years. Some remember him breaking into the big leagues with his first Major League home run at Tiger Stadium in 1999. Most remember him breaking their hearts for years after that in a Twins uniform. More recently, they remember him doing such simple things as breaking up a double play to help the Angels beat the Tigers in an August contest at Comerica Park, back when Detroit was still looking up at the AL Central lead.

Hunter wanted to remain an Angel, but he knew that might not be possible, with four other outfielders under team control for next season and beyond. He justified his starting role in right field and his coveted spot batting between Mike Trout and Albert Pujols with a season that defied his age.

After a decade and a half in the big leagues, Hunter's .313 average marked his first .300 season, and his .365 on-base percentage fell just a point short of his career high. He dropped below 20 homers for the first time in a full season since that rookie campaign of 1999, but he still either scored or drove in 157 runs.

He was no longer the star in the Angels' lineup, but he was a major cog. He was exactly what the Tigers were looking for. They just hadn't gotten around to chasing him yet.

"We hadn't even had our [organizational meetings]," Dombrowski said. "We didn't meet until Monday to set really our offseason ranking list. We rank them by certain needs, and we have them in positions. And Torii was on the top of our list."

Dombrowski has spent more than a decade recruiting players to fill needs in Detroit. His first offseason as Tigers general manager, he tried to recruit Miguel Tejada, and couldn't get a call returned from his agents.

When asked if he could remember a player recruiting him, he couldn't recall anything like that off the top of his head. He definitely doesn't remember anyone of Hunter's ability doing it.

"He didn't have to recruit us very hard," Dombrowski said.

He didn't have to do any more recruiting to get the Tigers to move.

"I know there's a lot of interest in Torii Hunter," Dombrowski said. "If you're going to do that, and you have an interest, you want to get that deal done as quickly as you can, if it's reasonable. I don't want someone else to come in and change his mind."

Around the same time, Hunter called up Prince Fielder, whose courtship with Ilitch and the Tigers went just as quickly last winter.

"He gave me all the information that I needed," Hunter said. "He was like, 'This is a first-class organization. I've had nothing but fun here, and 40,000 fans a game is electrifying.'

"He said, 'Trust me, I want you to come play with me.' I told him I wanted to play here. He said, 'Come play, you won't have anything to complain about.'"

The clincher was meeting Ilitch. When the Tigers were struggling to rebuild 10 years ago, Ilitch once said he wanted his team to be more like the Twins. Hunter was the face of that team at the time.

"He didn't walk in," Ilitch said. "He almost trotted in. He had a big smile on his face, a friendly look. It was just one of those situations like I've known this guy for 20 years. You meet people like that, and right away you're comfortable."

They talked about the team. They talked about family. They talked about community and about Detroit. That made an impression on Ilitch, who has invested heavily in developing downtown.

"We could've stayed there an hour, hour and a half," Ilitch said. "I told myself, at that time, thinking about more than himself, the team, Major League Baseball, I found somebody who -- and don't get me wrong, lots of people are this way -- this baseball player had other concerns about other people in the world."

Then they talked about winning.

"For me, just to hear him talk about the desire to win, he's just fired up about it," Hunter said. "He really wants me to come play because he saw me on the other side, I had so much fire. I would take out the shortstop, run down the line, I would dive for balls, run into the wall.

"He saw all that. He said, 'That's what kind of fire we need.' Hopefully, I can bring that to the ballclub. Not saying that none of the guys here have fire, they do have fire, but I want to bring something different and see if that works."

As Hunter sat at the press conference, joking with Ilitch, the fit he saw was evident. So was the personality. After all these years watching it from the other side, the Tigers personnel saw it first-hand.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.