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Lyle Spencer

Together or apart, Hunter, Abreu lead the way

Veteran hitters continue to mentor others after years as Angels teammates

Together or apart, Hunter, Abreu lead the way play video for Together or apart, Hunter, Abreu lead the way

On a recent visit to the Tigers' television booth in Detroit, former manager Jim Leyland was shown video from last October of Torii Hunter picking him up and carrying him into a raucous clubhouse celebration.

Leyland was visibly moved by the memory, the moment and by the man who lifted him out of an interview and hauled him into the party.

"People talk about leadership and leadership qualities," Leyland told viewers. "You're seeing the best.

"At Spring Training this year, I was there as a visitor watching the club. Some kids came over to run in a rundown drill, kids from Tigertown -- [Class] A ball, Rookie League, extended spring, whatever. Torii Hunter went over to each and every one of them, spoke to them, made them feel like part of the team that day. That's what Torii Hunter does."

Hunter is a unifier. It's who he is, what he does. If Major League Baseball had an award for Teammate of the Year, Hunter probably would own more of those than his nine Rawlings Gold Glove Awards.

For three years in Anaheim, starting in 2009, Hunter was joined by a man cut from the same cloth. While never as outgoing and media accessible as Torii, Bobby Abreu has had the same kind of impact on teams in Philadelphia, Anaheim and two New York boroughs, the Bronx and now Queens.

Abreu has lifted teammates through the respect he commands with his upbeat nature, as well as his impressive resume. Even Hunter, an established star, became a better player in Abreu's presence.

A free swinger most of his career, Hunter evolved into a total hitter with improved discipline, going the other way consistently. He gave Abreu much of the credit for enhancing his understanding of the craft.

"Bobby showed us how it's done," Hunter said. "We all stood on the dugout steps and in the on-deck circle and watched him take pitches, work counts. Seeing how patient he was, how he always figured out a way to get a good pitch, I couldn't go up there hacking.

"I became a better hitter. I owe a lot of that to Bobby. I know a lot of guys felt the same way, even veterans like Chone [Figgins]. You're never too old to learn new tricks of the trade."

Arriving as a free agent in 2009 from New York, where he'd tutored such young Yankees as Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera, Abreu saw Hunter lift his batting average 21 points to .299 and his on-base percentage 22 points to .366. Both were career highs.

Figgins raised his batting average 22 points to .298, his OBP 28 points to a career-high .395 and his walks from 62 to an AL-best 101. He has been instrumental this season as a Dodgers role player, helping Dee Gordon develop and follow his flying footsteps as a leadoff catalyst.

What goes around, in baseball, keeps going around.

"Bobby's locker was next to mine, and it was like when I had Garret [Anderson] next to me," Figgins said. "They're very similar in the way they have all this knowledge and are able to share it and make you better without changing you.

"Bobby's able to explain things to guys in simple terms they understand. There was something I was trying to get better at -- and here was Bobby, right next me, to help me get there.

"Bobby has a tremendous amount of wisdom. It's not easy to hit the way he does. It takes a lot of work. The big thing is, you have to become confident hitting behind in the count. You have to be willing to take that close 1-1 pitch to get to 2-1 -- and be confident you can hit with two strikes."

All of that knowledge and wisdom are available now to young Mets hitters as Abreu plays on at 40.

A .292 career hitter with a .872 OPS, Abreu has 2,443 hits and 1,460 walks, producing 288 homers and 399 steals. His discipline, in a sense, might have cost him a shot at the Hall of Fame. If Abreu had taken a more aggressive mindset at the expense of walks, like Ichiro Suzuki, he could be in the neighborhood of 3,000 hits.

When this was pointed out, the Venezuelan smiled.

"I've hit like this since I was 5 years old," Abreu said. "I've always been selective. You are what you are."

Abreu is in a club with Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan and Craig Biggio: the only players in history with 250 homers, 2,000 hits, 1,000 runs, 1,000 RBIs and 300 steals.

"Bobby came up in the home run era, with Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry," Hunter said. "The big bomb, that's all anybody cared about. Bobby's game is more subtle. He was left out in the cold with his singles, doubles, walks, steals. And he was a great right fielder in his prime, with a cannon."

There's nothing quiet about Hunter, and the Tigers are delighted to have access to his multiple gifts, on the field and behind closed doors.

"I think about [the late] Kirby Puckett a lot," Hunter said. "When I came to the Twins at 17 years old, they put me in a locker between Kirby and Dave Winfield in Spring Training in Florida, and I learned so much from those guys.

"I was blessed to have guys like Kirby helping me when I was young. I've tried to have that kind of positive influence on young guys wherever I've been and pass along the things I've learned."

In Minnesota, Hunter mentored his center-field successor, Denard Span. In Anaheim, Mike Trout, Howie Kendrick, Mark Trumbo and Peter Bourjos were among a flock of youthful Angels whose careers were advanced and enhanced by their leader and defender.

When Bourjos arrived in August 2010, Hunter went to Halos manager Mike Scioscia and volunteered to move to right field to accommodate the younger athlete.

"Torii was unbelievable to me," Bourjos, now with the Cardinals, said. "I'll never forget how gracious and helpful he was. He made me comfortable right away and taught me so much. Not many guys in his position would have done that."

Trout arrived a year later, wisely absorbing Hunter's teachings.

"It's the way he carried himself -- on the field, off the field, with fans, with everybody," Trout said. "He told me I could call him any time, and I did. He was always there for me. He really didn't even have to say anything. His presence, being around him, that helped me play with confidence, the right way.

"Everything is positive with Torii. There's nothing negative."

Angels reliever Michael Kohn recalls the April day in 2011 when he was demoted to the Minor Leagues. Hunter sought out his father for a heart-to-heart lasting about a half-hour, assuring him that his son would be back soon.

"Who else does something like that?" Kohn said. "Torii really cares about people -- and backs up his teammates."

Now Nick Castellanos, the Tigers' rookie third baseman, can vouch for Hunter's daily impact.

"Torii talks to me every day," Castellanos said. "He shows me the right way to do things, how to go about your business as a big leaguer. Torii stresses being a professional every day -- work hard, respect the game and your teammates. He's an awesome leader, vocally and by example."

Hunter, in the midst of another stellar season, burns to win a World Series. He'll be 39 in July and believes he can play into his 40s, like his old buddy, Abreu.

"I still love the game and can play," Hunter said. "Why walk away?"

The game won't be the same when it finally happens.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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