Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Game 2: Things end poorly, or they don’t end at all.

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Yesterday, before Game Two, my son chose his first Twins shirt. It was a t-shirt, dark blue, with “Twins” emblazoned across the front. And #48 and “Hunter” on the back.

It was appropriate. While watching a game a couple of months ago, the announcer referred to “Torii” and my son immediately turned to me and said “Is that Torii Hunter?” It was the first time he had recognized a Twins batter. Hell, it was the first time he had shown any recognition that a sports team was made up of individuals.

And if there’s one thing Torii has been, it’s an individual. He hasn’t been afraid to criticize the organization. Or to talk publicly about his contract status. Or to charm audiences nationwide with his personality. It’s part of why he’s perceived as so valuable to the franchise. A player can’t be the face of a team if he isn’t memorable. Torii, on and off the field, has given plenty of memories.

Unfortunately, the memory that may stick for a while was yesterday’s. Lost in all the talk about the boneheaded decision to dive for that ball was a sadder truth: that was a catchable ball. A late break and limited speed led to the decision to dive. Most center fielders would have caught that ball. Certainly, Athletics centerfielder Mark Kotsay has demonstrated that he would have caught that ball. There are two Twins, Jason Tyner and Lew Ford, who likely would have caught that ball.

And I wonder if the reason Hunter dove is because he knew, from years of flying around and flying higher than most, that he should be able to catch that ball.

This year he can’t. And he hasn’t been able to since he returned from the disabled list. Everybody recognizes this, and yet nobody wants to take the next step. Torii admits his foot is making him run differently. The media says he’s not making catches he used to. The coaching staff talks about how he’s playing at 70%. The tone is similar to that used when talking about gas prices. After all, what can you do?

Turns out, there are things you can do about gas prices. But it’s got to get bad. Real bad, because the next step is too painful. There’s too much invested in our SUVs and our suburban office complexes and low-priced, outer-ring, dream homes. Better to wait it out a while. It might get better.

And there’s too much invested in Hunter, too. Money, you say? Sure, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. There’s a coaching staff who remembers his home run to seemingly ice game 2 of the 2004 ALDS. And fans that remember him giving notice to the All-Star Game audience that Minnesota defense can match roid-induced offense. And there’s all those damn kids that are wearing that #48.

So we delayed the decision, at least until the offseason. The procrastination was rewarded by a torrid offensive pace in September, which helped overlook the continued defensive deficiencies. Three days ago, in most fans minds, Hunter was inked into the 2007 lineup, not just the 2006 playoff roster.

Then a short fly yesterday tried to remind us that Hunter’s limited range likely isn’t temporary. The stress fracture that’s causing him to run differently wasn’t caused by a fluke kamikaze play this year, it was caused by repeatedly pounding it on that damnable padded concrete parking lot we call “the outfield”. The home run wasn’t the result of a premier center fielder trying too hard. It was the result of a player, and a team, and a franchise and a state ignoring a hard truth - that their premier center fielder no longer was. And was no longer likely to be, at least not in this unforgiving ballpark.

The short fly tried to remind us, but for the most part it has failed. We’ll live in denial for at least one more game, because dammit, we want things to be different. I certainly do, partly because I’d like my 6-year-old to be able to watch his favorite Twin a bit longer. But mostly because there’s something I don’t want to end. It’s the feeling of privilege – that’s the word – to have watched Hunter’s defensive efforts. Including his latest disastrous one.


Snarky said...

Great post
1 I've been surprised how no one seems to be making the connection between "the miss" and Torri's injury.

Lonestar said...

You seem to be the first/only blogger to assert that was a catchable ball. Care to explain.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I'm not sure Willy Mays would have caught that one, even if it was 1954.

Anonymous said...

I would have to agree with your post. Hunter has made that play hundreds of times in his career. In his mind, he can still make that play. His miss yesterday is just a sign of the gradual decline that results from age and injury.

Intern Sam said...

To my eyes, Hunter has mostly recovered from his injury (I'm sure he's still making adjustments, but those should be unnecessary by next spring,) and it looks to me like his speed has only decreased a small amount, as you would expect anyone's to over age 30. The reason he didn't make the play on Kotsay's bloop was, I think, because he hesitated before starting his charge, probably because he was trying to consider whether or not to make the attempt. Obviously, he chose unwisely, but I'm just not sure that translates into the idea that he's done as a defensively superior fielder.

Lately, I've been wondering if Torii might not be the second coming of Jim Edmonds, a defensively superior, offensively above average center fielder who plays hard as hell and therefore runs a risk of injury. The Angels figured Edmonds was about at the end of his usefulness a few years back (or at least that he wasn't worth paying big money to keep,) but his career caught a pretty significant second wind in St. Louis.

I would understand if Terry Ryan decided not to pick up Hunter's option this winter - it's certainly one way to go, and there's a case to be made for it. But if it were me, I'd keep him. $9.5m isn't really all that much for the kind of player he is.

John said...

I've seen replays and on TV, it didn't look that catchable. Live, from center field, it looked like he got a bad break on the ball, misread it, and couldn't make it up with his speed.

I could be wrong. I was behind him, way above him, and didn't get that good an angle. But to me, it looked like more evidence that his range is far more limited than it's been previously, and nobody seems to want to do anything about it.

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