Away from the game: Judo gives Tommy Hunter life lessons

This is the third article in an occasional series about Maryland area athletes away from the game.

Tommy Hunter still hears it a lot in the Orioles clubhouse.

"Judo champ coming!" someone will sing out.

"Here comes Judo Boy!" another player will say.

"It definitely gets old," the veteran right-hander says with a weary smile. "I've heard it since I've been playing baseball. . . I roll with it."

Sure, as a two-time Junior Olympics gold medalist in judo, the 6-foot-3, 260-pound Hunter could get one of his wise-guy teammates in a wicked armbar or chokehold and end the needling in a heartbeat.

But Buck Showalter might frown on that, since the sound of bones snapping and bodies thudding to the floor aren't exactly music to a major league manager's ears.

When Hunter was pitching for the Texas Rangers, however, he once gave teammate Cliff Lee an impromptu judo lesson.

"I put him in a move one night and he flipped out," Hunter recalls.

This was at Hunter's house, on the living room floor, at a very late hour.

"(Lee) said: 'Everybody says you're good at judo. Put me in a move that impresses me," Hunter recalls . "So I put him in a move. And I impressed him."

Hunter says he doesn't remember what the move was. But it didn't land Lee on the disabled list with torn ligaments or a separated shoulder. So in that sense, the night was an unqualified success.

Hunter, 29, began taking judo lessons at the tender age of five in his hometown of Indianapolis. The lessons were a present from his grandmother.

"As any five-year-old would," I wanted to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle at the time," he says. "That was my thing. Everything was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

Young Tommy was placed under the tutelage of a judo master named C.M. Park, a man of indeterminate age who'd been teaching the martial art forever. The boy took to it immediately. So, too, did his older sister, Megan, who eventually became a black belt who trained with the U.S. Olympic judo team before the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.

Life back then for Tommy and Megan consisted of jumping in the car every weekend with their parents and heading off to another judo tournament.

"We traveled all over," Hunter said . "Every weekend it was somewhere else. It turned into a family thing."

He won the Junior Olympics gold medal when he was 11, and then again when he was 12. Soon after, Hunter drifted away from competitive judo to concentrate on baseball.

As we know now, he took to that sport a little bit, too. And after a stellar career at Indianapolis Cathedral High, he played two years for the University of Alabama before the Rangers drafted him in 2003.

But judo, he says, has helped him immensely in just about every aspect of his baseball career.

"The main thing about judo is having balance, control of your own body," he says. ". . .(It) helps keep your body in line and balanced. It helps with your breathing, too. And learning how to deal with pressure. Being choked out (in judo) is a little more pressure than having guys on second and third, I can tell you that."

Judo helped toughen him mentally, too, he says. And it helped him focus on the task at hand.

"Oh, definitely," he says. "I was five years old, getting hit over the head with bamboo sticks 'cause my mouth was open."

The kindly Mr. C.M. Park would do that?

"Yeah," Hunter said. "He had free rein. My parents said: 'If he needs it, kick him in the (butt.)'"

These days Hunter confines his judo to practicing a few moves with Brady Anderson, the former Orioles outfielder who's now a special assistant to club vice-president Dan Duquette.

Anderson has a background in jujitsu. But when they break out the mats in the Orioles clubhouse, both men are cautious about unleashing their inner Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, lest someone gets hurt.

"We just have fun with it," said Hunter, who added that his Orioles contract probably prohibits him from any serious judo competition.

"Wouldn't be the smartest thing to do as a pitcher, anyway."

As a former judo champ, though, he's also intrigued by the enormous popularity and explosive growth of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), the ultimate tough-guy sport these days.

In fact, the kid from Indianapolis who grew up driving his opponents to the mat and subduing them seems almost wistful talking about MMA.

"I like watching it," he said . "If I learned to box, I would try it. I'm not going to get in the ring with any of those guys, though. That would be crazy."

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

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