Hunter's talents evident from the start

Times Staff Writer

PINE BLUFF, Ark. -- Torii Hunter was a wisp of a player, all of 6 feet, 160 pounds, when he roamed center field for the Pine Bluff High Zebras in the early 1990s, but that lithe frame packed prodigious potential.

"He was skinny, but he could run, he had a great arm, and he could hit for power," Pine Bluff Coach Mark Jelks, an assistant when Hunter attended the school, said in his Taylor Field office last week.

"He hit a ball at Lake Hamilton High, over by Hot Springs, that the coach there measured at 500 feet. It was real wet, and when the ball came down, it just stuck in the mud. It was like two fields away from home plate."

Hunter, who led Pine Bluff to a 35-3 record and a state championship as a junior in 1992, could flash a little leather too.

"He would run balls down in the outfield and always knew when to dive," Jelks said. "I remember we were in Little Rock, playing J.A. Fair High, and we were up, 3-2, in the seventh.

"They had runners on second and third, and a guy hits one to deep right-center. Torii went over a chain-link fence and cut his arm all up, but he brought the ball back. He was always very aggressive defensively. You can't teach that."

Hunter has filled out since then -- he's now 6-2 and a muscular 225 pounds -- but he has maintained that ability to run down balls, to make diving catches and scale walls, which earned the former Minnesota Twins star the nickname "Spiderman."

Told his new teammate, Angels right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, wears a Superman T-shirt under his uniform, Hunter warmed to the idea of a superhero-filled outfield.

"That's sweet, man," Hunter said.

If only the Angels could have acquired Batman.

Another slugger is what this lineup needed, most Angels fans believe, and though Hunter averaged 29 home runs and 102 runs batted in over the last two seasons, some don't think he has the pure power to fully protect Guerrero.

"That big bat the Angels are looking for . . . I have five tools, the big bat has one," said Hunter, who signed a five-year, $90-million contract in November. "That big bat will hit, but what else can he do for you? To me, this lineup is more balanced, more threatening."

Though Hunter signed the largest contract in Angels history, he doesn't expect to be a savior in Anaheim.

"I'm not the type of guy to put pressure on myself," he said. "I have enough experience not to get caught up in that."

Nor will that massive contract change him.

"You think about a guy making that kind of money, but if you talk to him, you'd never know it," Jelks said.

"He's the same person right now that he was in high school. He'll walk up to you, shake your hand, ask how your family is, what's been going on, have you been catching any fish, stuff like that. He's not better than anyone else."

On the field, he was. Hunter was first-team all-state his junior and senior years, he was selected to USA Today's national team as a senior, and he developed into a first-round pick, the 20th overall selection in the 1993 draft, at Pine Bluff High.

Even when Torii was a 7-year-old playing his first organized game, Shirley Hunter, Torii's mother, had an inkling he might be special.

"I got to his first game in the first inning, and I was like, wait a minute, what's going on? I've been here long enough to know my child should be on the field," Shirley Hunter said.

"I went up to the fence and said, real firm, 'Why are you not on the field?' He said, 'Momma, the coach hasn't put me out there yet.' I said, 'If you're not on the field the next time they go out, you're coming out of there, because you're better than anybody out there.'

"The coach heard me because I was talking loud. So, after his team batted, the next thing I know, Torii was running out on that field . . . and he's been out there ever since."

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