Torii Hunter still chasing coveted World Series ring

PROSPER, Texas — Torii Hunter plops down in a leather chair in a room of his 19,900-square-foot, Mediterranean-style estate that is part sports bar, part shrine.

Three flat-screen TVs are tuned in to ESPN and MLB Network. A trophy case is filled with Gold Glove awards and an array of memorabilia. There’s a pool table, bar and a life-sized cardboard cutout of the former Angels outfielder in action.

It’s a dream room for any serious sports fan, but it’s missing the one thing Hunter covets most, something the $135 million he’s made in 14 big league seasons can’t buy:

A World Series ring.

“When I wake up at 5:45 a.m. to work out, all I think about is that World Series ring,” says Hunter, 37. “That’s what’s driving me. I’ve been searching for it all my life.”

There’s not much sand left in the hourglass. Nine years in Minnesota and five in Anaheim failed to get Hunter to the World Series, and now he figures he has two good years left.

When the Angels made a token attempt to re-sign him after a superb 2012 season in which he hit a career-high .313 with 16 homers and 92 runs batted in, Hunter immediately targeted Detroit, which was swept by San Francisco in the World Series, as his best title shot.

Ignoring interest from Texas, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta and the New York Yankees, Hunter flew to Detroit before Thanksgiving and met for six hours with Manager Jim Leyland and General Manager Dave Dombrowski.

Hunter relished batting second behind the speedy Austin Jackson and ahead of triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera and sluggers Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez. He loved the Tigers rotation of Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello — and the talent of potential closer Bruce Rondon, whose fastball has been clocked as high as 103 mph. And there was the bonus of being a 31/2-hour drive from South Bend, Ind., where his son, Torii Jr., a football and baseball player, will attend Notre Dame in the fall.

By the time Hunter boarded his return flight to Texas, he was in agreement with the Tigers on a two-year, $26-million deal.

“I’m excited to be there,” Hunter said. “We really do have a chance to win that division and go to the World Series.”

Hunter thrived after Angels Manager Mike Scioscia inserted him between leadoff man Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in June. In 85 games there, Hunter hit .343 with a .376 on-base percentage, .478 slugging percentage and 69 RBIs.

The second spot in Detroit is another prime location.

“I’m confident it will be the same feel, the same dynamic,” Hunter said. “I’ll be in front of the triple crown winner and one of the best hitters in the game in Fielder. It’s a good fit for me.”

Anaheim appeared to be a good fit for Hunter too. As he carried the Angels in September, hitting .345 with 27 RBIs in 29 games, owner Arte Moreno told the team’s radio station, “If we don’t figure out a way to re-sign him, we’re going to get hung, aren’t we?”

But in conversations with General Manager Jerry Dipoto, Hunter said he was led to believe the Angels were financially handcuffed by the $42 million they owe reserve outfielder Vernon Wells. Their offer to Hunter was for $5 million.

Then the Angels signed outfielder Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125-million deal in December. “I was told money was tight, but I guess Arte had money hidden under a mattress,” Hunter tweeted that day. “Business is business, but don’t lie.”

Hunter said he was “trying to be funny” in his tweet, adding that the Angels organization “is A-1; I had a blast there.” But he also felt misled. “Just tell me straight up that you don’t want me,” Hunter said, “and I’ll be fine with that.”

Hamilton is a more-than-adequate on-field replacement for Hunter, but there will be a significant void in the clubhouse. Hunter was the conscience of the team, an advisor to young players and a clubhouse enforcer when needed. He was always accessible, after wins and gut-wrenching losses.

“When things are good, you’re cool; when things are going really bad, a lot of guys are out,” Hunter said. “That leadership in the clubhouse is totally different than on the field. Hopefully, somebody steps up.”

Hunter thinks Erick Aybar is a strong candidate because “he’s tough, he plays every day, and he gets in your face if you don’t play right,” but the shortstop is cautious with the media, preferring to do interviews in Spanish.

Pujols was often unavailable or declined to talk after games last season, his first in Anaheim, and Hamilton, though accessible, was not considered a “voice-of-the-team” type player in Texas.

Eventually, Hunter predicts, the Angels will be Trout’s team.

“He’s young, but he has all the intangibles — he’s a go-getter, he’s tough,” Hunter said of the 2012 American League rookie of the year. “You lead by example most of the time, but I think after a year or two, this guy will be a leader, he’ll be vocal, he’ll get in your face, everything. He’s groomed.”