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Change Of Fortune

Times Staff Writer

PROSPER, Texas -- It seems fitting that Torii Hunter chose this burgeoning North Dallas suburb to build his dream home, a 19,900-square-foot, Mediterranean-style estate that sits on 20 acres, 3 1/2 of them covered by a lake.

Growing up five hours east of here in gritty Pine Bluff, Ark., a small city notorious for its big-city problems -- gangs, drugs, poverty, violent crime -- the Angels’ new center fielder did anything but prosper, at least, economically.

Hunter’s father, a Vietnam veteran, was addicted to crack cocaine and blew too many paychecks on drugs and booze, his habits eventually costing him his job as an electrician for the local railroad.

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Theotis Hunter would disappear for weeks at a time, his family never knowing if he was dead or alive, and during one of those benders, Torii found his dad passed out on a crack-house floor.

Shirley Hunter struggled to pay the utilities and keep her four boys clothed and fed on an elementary school teacher’s salary and a prayer.

There were days Torii and his brothers knocked on neighbors’ doors, asking for food, or hid in the back of the house when bill collectors came.

Rock bottom, Hunter said, came in 1997, when he opened the season with the Minnesota Twins’ double-A affiliate in New Britain, Conn.

His first-round, $450,000 signing bonus from 1993 spent -- $60,000 built an indoor practice facility for the Pine Bluff High baseball team, the rest went to support himself, his family and a child -- Hunter was broke when Twins minor leaguers broke camp.

“I didn’t have money for the first month’s rent, so me and my roommate slept in front of the stadium in a car -- a Geo Prizm -- for two weeks,” said Hunter, who left the Twins to sign a five-year, $90-million deal with the Angels in November.

“I had no help. We couldn’t afford $19 a day for a hotel room. We’d wake up in the morning, hang out in the mall all day, come to the stadium and take a shower.”

Now look at him. Hunter, who will join the Angels for their first full-squad spring-training workout in Arizona on Wednesday, can bathe in any of 11 bathrooms, and he and his wife, Katrina, sleep in a large master suite that has a sunken den, fireplace and a view of the pool and Jacuzzi.

The entrance to the two-year-old, six-bedroom home, which is around the corner from former NFL star Deion Sanders’ palatial estate, features a grand foyer with marble floors, Roman columns and a 40-foot-high rotunda.

There’s a home theater with an 85-inch television, surround sound and leather seats, a game room with a pool table, bar, three flat-screen TVs and a trophy case, an indoor basketball court and batting cage, and a workout room with a hyperbaric chamber.

There are his-and-hers garages -- Torii’s includes a burnt orange 1964 convertible Impala -- and his-and-hers offices, Torii’s featuring a switch under a shelf that, when flipped, turns a bookcase into a secret door.

Down a hidden hallway, a heavy door opens to a small room with a bench and a phone.

“This is the panic room,” Hunter, 32, said. “The walls are concrete, eight inches thick, that go deep into the ground, the door is bulletproof, and the phone line can’t be cut.

“If we ever have a tornado or a hurricane, we’d go in here . . . but it’s also from growing up in the ‘hood. My upbringing has me worried about a lot of stuff, and when we first moved out here, there weren’t many houses, it was kind of isolated. Safety is first.”

As a teenager in Pine Bluff, Hunter carried a gun -- “For protection,” he said, “not to rob anybody” -- but here in Texas, he’s beginning to feel safe at home.

“Every time I drive up to the house, I look at it and thank God, because being from Pine Bluff, with all the things I’ve seen and gone through, to see how far I’ve come . . . it’s kind of like a fantasy, a dream,” Hunter said. “After we moved here, we really thought about what the word ‘prosper’ means.”

Hunter was 13, in the eighth grade, when he realized his father had a serious drug problem. Theotis -- and Torii’s Chicago Bulls jacket -- were missing for two weeks, and one morning both reappeared, the jacket on a chair and Theotis sleeping on a couch.

“I grabbed the jacket, went to school, raised my hand to answer a question and something fell out of the pocket -- ting, onto the floor,” Hunter said. “It was a crack pipe. I picked it up real quick and told the teacher I had to use the restroom.

“I got in there, picked up the back of the toilet, wiped my fingerprints off the pipe, dropped it in the toilet and closed it up. I was in tears. I can’t even explain to you how hurt I was. It was tough to look at your dad after that. You definitely look at him different.”

Then there was that hellacious night in October 1994. Home after his first full pro season, Hunter found his Ford Explorer -- and his father -- were missing.

Five days later, Torii found the truck parked at a crack house.

He went in, and, seeing Theotis passed out on the floor, Torii went into a rage, throwing fists at everyone in the room.

That night, Hunter and a friend, Basil Shabazz, a former Pine Bluff star who was a top prospect in the St. Louis Cardinals system, drove to the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.

While Hunter visited a cousin in a dormitory, Shabazz fell asleep in the Explorer. Police knocked on the window and Shabazz, thinking he was being robbed, pulled a gun.

Shabazz was handcuffed, Hunter was pulled from the dorm, and a search of the car uncovered a marijuana joint and a pipe sprinkled with crack, which belonged to Theotis.

Torii was released the next morning on $2,500 bail, and charges were eventually dropped, but Shabazz was released by the Cardinals, and his athletic career was eventually cut short by a football injury at Arkansas Pine Bluff.

“Basil made some pretty bad choices,” Hunter said, “but I still feel like my dad had something to do with him being released.”

Hunter said Theotis, who got hooked on heroin in Vietnam, has disappeared for a week or more at least 20 times over the years. Theotis fathered three children outside his marriage, he was fired from his job in 1998, and Shirley divorced him in 1999.

“You have an understanding of where he might have been when you find out you have [half] brothers you didn’t know you had,” Hunter said. “But it was tough when he was missing. You’d sit at home, you couldn’t do your homework, you couldn’t do anything.

“After two or three weeks of searching every corner, asking a drug dealer or a friend if they’ve seen your dad, it dawns on you that your dad is dead.”

After battling drugs and depression for decades, Theotis seems to have turned a corner. Torii moved Theotis out of Pine Bluff, buying him a townhouse in Frisco, Texas, two years ago, and Torii is convinced his dad has been clean for about 10 months.

Theotis, now 56, is at Torii’s house almost every day, cooking Southern dishes, picking up 12-year-old Torii Jr. from practice and attending games, and helping him with school projects.

“I feel good, but it’s hard,” said Theotis, who has Torii’s big grin and easy laugh. “I’ve got to get all the demons out of me, stay positive and take life one day at a time. But I didn’t have a few demons. I had a legion of them.”

Torii always thought if he made the big leagues, he could cure his father, but Theotis has been in and out of rehabilitation “at least 10 times,” Hunter said, with limited results.

“Money doesn’t solve anything,” Hunter said. “It gives you the means to pay for the rehabs . . . but the best rehab is love, and that’s what we’re trying to show him.”

There is still pain. All those years of neglect took a toll.

“I can’t ever recall my dad coming to any of my games or anything like that when I was a kid,” Hunter said. “I know he worked, but some days he was off, and he just didn’t come. . . .”

Hunter’s eyes turn toward his office window. He stares into the distance. His voice trails off.

Does it still hurt today?

“Sometimes, yeah,” Hunter said, fighting back tears. “I’m human. To think about it is sad. But I know there’s another kid out there going through the same thing. I want to tell him to keep his head up, stay strong, keep God close, and everything will be all right.”

This is why Hunter, who for years hid his family secret, began opening up about his turbulent past in 2005. He hopes to inspire kids from troubled environments.

“I want to let people know that, like everyone else, I have problems,” Hunter said. “It may not be a drug problem, but everybody has problems. I want people to know they’re not alone.”

Especially his son.

“Everything I did not have or did not do or did not see, I make sure my son has it, does it or sees it,” Hunter said. “I talk to him about life. We laugh, we have deep conversations about finances, girls. I never had that with my father, and I felt I was behind on a couple things because of that.

“I don’t want my kids to go through what I went through. That’s why I fly home on off days for [Torii Jr.'s] games. I don’t want my son to be 25 and say, ‘You were never at my games, you never talked to me.’ ”

There was one benefit to having a drug addict for a father. It was a strong deterrent to Torii, his older brother, Taru, and younger brothers Tishque and Tramar.

“When you look at your father and see what it does to him, as a kid, you do not want to fall into that kind of living,” Hunter said. “That was something I ran away from. It scared us . . . and at the same time, it may have saved us.”

The pull of drugs was strong in Pine Bluff, a town of about 55,000 people on the Arkansas River, 40 miles south of Little Rock.

An abundance of pine trees and a scarcity of tall buildings downtown give Pine Bluff a rural feel, but those looks can be deceiving.

Any scent from the pine trees is usually dwarfed by the odor spewing from the smokestacks of the two paper mills that flank the town, and urban problems have plagued the city for years.

The 2007 edition of Cities Ranked and Rated, which ranks the best places to live in the U.S., rated Pine Bluff No. 361 out of 373 metropolitan areas, mostly because of a violent crime rate that is nearly twice the national average.

Murder is so prevalent that years ago locals began calling the town “Pine Box,” as in, be careful, or you’ll end up in a pine box. Hunter knew about a dozen people, including several close friends, who were killed in gang shootings.

“The temptation to deal drugs, to do drugs, is so evident in this town because for every drug dealer that gets taken off the streets, there are three or four who want to take his place,” said Keith Brown, who lives in Pine Bluff and is one of Hunter’s best friends.

“But the thing is, Torii is a strong-willed person. He had the talent, the determination and the love for the sport, so he would never risk getting in trouble and missing a practice or a game.”

Torii spent most of his childhood in a brick home, which Hunter still owns but is now vacant, on Belmoor Avenue. The neighborhood has a middle-class feel until you notice the sprinkling of homes that have been abandoned, torn down or are in disrepair.

Some houses on Belmoor have bars over the windows for protection; next door to Hunter’s house, on each side, there are cars parked on the front lawn.

“This is an OK place to live, but things still happen,” Brown said last week, standing in Hunter’s old yard. “You can turn a corner, cross a street, be near the projects, and boom, you’re in harm’s way.”

Brown, who recently graduated from Arkansas Pine Bluff and is working on his teaching credential, knows all too well. His older brother, Cedric, was shot and killed after a barroom dispute in 1991, when Keith and Torii were 15.

“That changed our lives,” Brown said. “After that, everyone started looking out for each other.”

Especially Taru Hunter, who joined the Crips as a teenager but did everything he could to keep Torii, who was beginning to shine on the baseball field, away from gangs.

“He wanted me to excel, so he put his name out there as one of those tough guys on the street,” Torii said of Taru, now 35 and a personal trainer in the Dallas area. “Guys would see me and say, ‘That’s Taru’s brother, leave him alone.’ He was my protector.”

Hunter also took measures to protect himself. Though he squirms a bit when asked, he admits he carried a weapon as a kid.

“I’m a very honest guy, the past is the past, but everyone I knew had a gun, and so did I,” Hunter said.

Did he ever shoot it?

“Now on that,” he said, “I’ll plead the Fifth.”

Hunter wonders sometimes how he survived.

“I hung out with gang members, I’ve seen bullets ring out, bullets whiz right past me -- I’ve seen my brother’s car get shot up, but he never got hit,” Hunter said. “All you can do is go by faith.”

Shirley Hunter tried to keep her kids busy, sending them straight from football to basketball, from basketball to baseball and track, and over the summer, she’d help organize neighborhood games.

She did much of this while commuting from a teaching job in Little Rock from 1982 to 1987, Torii’s Little League years. Shirley finally got a job teaching second grade in Pine Bluff in 1987 and remains there today.

“She’d rush home, fix us food, get us to practice or games, and she did it with four boys, pretty much on her own,” Hunter said. “She was a perfect lady.”

Torii was not perfect. Though he and Katrina began dating in high school and were married at age 21, Torii fathered two children, boys who are now 13 and 12, by other women.

“I was young, I didn’t have that fatherly advice,” Hunter said. “Now, that’s what I give my kid.”

Hunter gives so much more. After signing a four-year, $32-million contract with the Twins before 2003, he bought townhomes and cars for all three of his brothers, who now live in Frisco, the town next to Prosper.

He bought new homes for his mother -- a 7,500-square-foot home in a gated community on the outskirts of Pine Bluff -- and his mother-in-law. Shabazz and his family live rent-free in Hunter’s previous residence, a 3,500-square-foot home in The Colony, Texas.

Hunter and his wife created the Torii & Katrina Pine Bluff Community Fund, and Hunter donates hundreds of tickets each year for disadvantaged kids to attend games.

“If I didn’t make it to the major leagues, my dad would still be on drugs, my mom would be living in an apartment, and my brothers would still be in Pine Bluff,” Hunter said. “I’m so thankful. Helping your family out . . . it brings tears to your eyes.”

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com


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