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Razorback Road: Torii Hunter – A Razorback at Heart

BY ANDRES FOCIL
Razorback Road: Torii Hunter – A Razorback at Heart

In honor of the start of the World Series, it marked a great time to re-visit a story we first ran in Inside Razorback Athletics about Arkansas native Torii Hunter. Hunter recently completed an All-Star season with the Detroit Tigers. Hunter and former Razorback pitcher Drew Smyly were key components to the Tigers’ post-season run, a run that culminated in the American League Championship Series.

Although Hunter never donned the cardinal uniform on the baseball field, the Razorbacks are his college team. Recently, he made a gift to help fund the Baseball and Track Indoor Training Facility currently underway near Baum Stadium.

So during this football open date, it is time to talk a little baseball and revisit the story ofPine Bluff nativeTorii Hunter.

Torii Hunter – A Razorback at Heart

Five-time All-Star Detroit Tigers’ outfielder Torii Hunter never officially donned a Razorback uniform, but that doesn’t mean the Pine Bluff native doesn’t consider himself a true Razorback. In 1993, Hunter signed a letter of intent to play baseball at the University of Arkansas, but decided to sign professionally with the Minnesota Twins after they selected him in the first round of the draft. Although his path didn’t bring him to Fayetteville, his heart never detoured.

"I have always had a history with the Razorbacks and (former Arkansas baseball) Coach Norm DeBriyn," Hunter says. "I’ve known Coach DeBriyn since I was 15 years old. My wife is a graduate of the University of Arkansas. So there was always a connection there. I’ve never forgotten about my Arkansas and Pine Bluff roots. It is always been there for me. I bleed Razorback."

Having recently completed his 17th year of an ultra-successful Major League Baseball career, Hunter is leading the way for the school he calls home with a $100,000 gift to support the construction of a new baseball and track indoor training facility. The gift will enable generations of future Razorback student-athletes to pursue their academic and athletic dreams.

"We are deeply appreciative of the lead gift Torii has made for this important facility for our program," Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Jeff Long says. "From his humble beginnings in Arkansas to his all-star baseball career, Torii is a tremendous example for our student-athletes of how athletics can provide a lifetime of opportunities. His generosity is now providing those opportunities for others."

Hunter’s rise to baseball stardom wasn’t nearly as smooth as the patented swing that has earned him a Silver Slugger Award. As a child, Hunter and his family faced everyday challenges for things many take for granted. It was in the course of those hardships that he made a decision that would shape the rest of his life.

"As a youngster growing up in Pine Bluff, everybody looked out for everybody, but there were some rough times," Hunter says. "There were times where we didn’t have much food and we had our lights cut off and things like that. It was rough on my family. That was my motivation to help my family out. I knew my Mom couldn’t afford for me to go to college and pay for school so I had to use my athletic ability. Once I saw I could play football and baseball and use my athletic ability and my mind, I just put my all into it and told myself that I had to make it."

But putting your mind to it isn’t the only requirement to learn the intricacies of America’s pastime. In fact, Hunter originally had his eyes set on a professional football career.

"In the eighth and ninth grade, a lot of people came to me and said ‘Hey, you could really play baseball," Hunter said. "I was like baseball? I was a football guy.’ So I kind of pursued that in the eighth or ninth grade. I wanted to learn so I watched baseball on TV and I learned from TV. I didn’t really just learn from one person. I learned watching Andre Dawson, Ozzie Smith, Terry Pendleton, and Dale Murphy with the Braves. That is how I learned to play this great game of baseball."

As Hunter started to learn the game, his natural athletic ability began to show. It wasn’t long before long-time Pine Bluff High School coach Billy Bock took notice and started spreading the word about this budding star.

"Billy Bock, his high school coach, came to all of our camps," former Arkansas baseball head coach Norm DeBriyn recalls. "Billy, he could talk a lot. He said, ‘I have this sophomore who is going to be something else.’ He was talking about Torii Hunter. I think I saw him as a sophomore and you could tell he was something special. He was just an athlete. He could throw and he could run. He just looked so good in his uniform. So I began to follow him. When he became a senior everybody was on him. LSU just camped out there. Torii wanted to be a Razorback and all of that worked out."

Hunter signed with Arkansas, but when the Twins selected him in the first round of the 1993 draft, it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. The dream of playing for the Razorbacks was put aside to honor his commitment to support his family.

But even as a first round draft pick, his path to the Major Leagues didn’t progress as quickly as expected, at least by his standards. Four years into his professional career, Hunter was discouraged and seriously considered heading back to Arkansas.

"I always thought about what it would be like to play at Arkansas," Hunter says. "In 1997, before I got to the big leagues, I was talking to my wife and older brother and telling him I don’t know if I want to play minor league baseball anymore. I was 22 years old and had not met my timetable to be there. I didn’t understand that I was still young. I was married and missed my family and kids and I decided I was going back to school. I was making $600 every two weeks. But they told me, I better not come back. Within two weeks, I was called up for my Major League debut."

Once given his opportunity, Hunter made the most of it. After brief stints with the Twins in 1997 and 1998, Hunter played most of 1999 and 2000 at the big league level. In 2002, Hunter turned in his first all-star season racking up 29 home runs, 94 RBI and 23 stolen bases. He returned to the All-Star game in 2007, 2009 and 2010 and entered the 2013 season as a lifetime .277 hitter with 297 career home runs and 1,143 RBI.

But even more than his contributions on the field, Hunter and his wife Katrina, a University of Arkansas graduate, have always given back to those in need. In fact, they have given more than $1 million to various causes and charities.

"I think God every day for the opportunity to play major league baseball," Hunter says. "It was my dream. It hasn’t always been easy. I have had rough patches here and there. But I am thankful that I have been able to make good money to get my family out of debt and get them away from those circumstances. You have to change mindsets. That is what you have to do. God blessed me to bless others. So when we get opportunity we try to give back with a smile or financially. I grew up with not much at all, understanding the lines. They would feed the hungry on different days and we would wait in line to see if they had enough to feed us.

"I always told myself that if the Lord blessed me I was always going to give back. I am a steward over my money and I save money to give back as much as I can. Through Major League baseball I’ve been able to do that."

And now Hunter is giving back to the school he calls home in hopes that others step up to be a part of making a difference in the lives of student-athletes. Hunter believes the baseball and track indoor facility can help do that.

"This is a chance to be a part of history and something that will serve generation to generation," Hunter says. "Student-athletes will learn so much and go on to play Major League Baseball or compete in the Olympics. It is a great investment in the students. Being a Razorback is part of you and part of that is giving back and making things better. I wanted to keep that legacy going. I would encourage all alumni and players to give back because that is what makes the University of Arkansas excel."



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