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Updated: May 27th, 2011 7:55pm
Mackey: It's pretty hard not to miss Torii Hunter

Mackey: It's pretty hard not to miss Torii Hunter

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Prior to Friday's series opener against the Los Angeles Angels, Torii Hunter -- making his second career visit to Target Field -- was asked whether he sees any similarities between the 2006 Minnesota Twins and this year's troubled team.

The 2006 Twins, led in large part by Hunter's career-high 31 home runs, dipped as far as eight games below .500 in early June, only to go on an historic tear to finish 96-66.

Trying to be somewhat diplomatic, Hunter said, "We had a rough start, but we had all our guys, so you know that it wasn't going to just last.

"It was just a little funk that we were going through in the start of the season. But we had (Michael) Cuddyer, we had myself, we had (Justin) Morneau, we had (Joe) Mauer and everybody at that time, and there wasn't too many injuries."

Of course, in 2006 the Twins also had Johan Santana and a pre-surgery version of Francisco Liriano. Not to mention a lights-out bullpen with a healthy Joe Nathan at the end.

"The ballclub, they do what they do," Hunter added. "(Manager Ron) Gardenhire is leading the way. He's going to execute, he's going to hit and run, bunt, do all the great things, take that extra 90 feet. And that's all you can do. If you lose from there, it is what it is."

Oh, Gardenhire is going to execute, all right.

Starting with the bullpen.

It would be foolish to suggest that the Twins miss Hunter enough to pay him $90 over five years, including $18 million this year and next.

And considering Hunter's age (35) and meager .236/.323/.374 batting line, it's clear the Twins made a wise financial decision by letting the right fielder walk after a 2007 season in which he hit .287/.334/.505 with 28 home runs.

But based on the current state of affairs, it would also be perfectly acceptable for the Twins -- 14 games out of first place prior to Memorial Day -- to admit they miss Hunter just a little bit.

"He came to the park with that smile,"  Gardenhire recalled when asked about his former clubhouse leader. "You knew when he arrived. He made everybody around here a little more pumped up. But he played at a level that he was in to it. He didn't accept somebody not running a ball out in the field or on the base paths. Torii was a guy who would go over and talk to them.

"Those are the leaders who really carry you out in that clubhouse."

The Twins, toiling 16 games under .500 heading into a weekend series with the Angels, do have leaders. Cuddyer, Morneau and Denard Span are each known to have expressed themselves vocally behind the scenes this season. Jim Thome expressed himself by example with two home runs in his first game back from the disabled list.

Losing breeds lifelessness, and so does an injection of 12 Triple-A call-ups. But something just seems to be missing from a personality standpoint. The Twins just seem more subdued and flat than at any point in recent history.

"You need a couple guys," said Hunter, who received a loud ovation prior to his first at-bat. "When I played (in Minnesota), we had crazy guys. Guys were loco. I mean, even my last couple years, Luis Castillo, he was crazy. Redmond was crazy. The naked run through the clubhouse, just crazy stuff. When we were losing, he's taking batting practice naked with spikes on.

"You can't do nothing but get out of a slump when you see something like that. So I mean, just a bunch of crazy guys having fun, and even when you lose and they're crazier. You need guys like that, always.

"I'm pretty sure they have some guys like that, don't they?"

Hunter's question was met with awkward silence by local reporters who searched their brains trying to think of anybody in the current Twins clubhouse who would warrant the "loco" label.

Unless "loco" entails Glen Perkins once supposedly dropping a 50-point bomb in Words With Friends. Or a couple of the starting pitchers who allegedly play aggressive games of Pinochle on the team plane.

And there was that one time in Fort Myers when Kevin Slowey unscrewed Nick Blackburn's locker cupboard door and placed it on Tsuyoshi Nishioka's chair.

A trip to Bed, Bath and Beyond, perhaps? I don't know. I don't know if we'll have enough time.

Whether or not a fun clubhouse dynamic equates to more team wins is up for debate. It's hard to believe that naked batting practice and rally caps trump talent and hard work, but maybe they play off each other. We'll probably never know.

"I don't know, I just did it," Hunter said about being a clubhouse figurehead. "It wasn't for me. ... When I do it, I don't go tell the media. I just did what I had to do, because all I care about is winning. When I think somebody's not on board, I have to talk to them. I don't have to tell the media or nobody. Nobody will ever know. I talk to them on the side, and nobody would ever know.

"Obviously somebody told you guys that I was a leader, but I wasn't trying to be. I was just leading by example, just being myself. All I care about is winning. So I don't know. I can't explain it. When you can explain how to be a leader, then I think you're just a front. I just can't explain it, I just do it. When you want to win, you want everybody on board. When you see someone stray away, you've got to grab them and bring them back."

Hunter has never been shy about voicing his opinions in clubhouses. Hell, he once tried punching Justin Morneau near the end of the 2005 season.

When Hunter arrived to Los Angeles in 2008, the Angels already had established vets such as Garret Anderson, Vlad Guerrero, Chone Figgins, John Lackey and others. But that didn't stop Hunter from stepping up behind the scenes. Hunter, 32 years old at the time, said he felt comfortable "right away" taking on a leadership role.

"I didn't yell," he said. "We had team meetings in 2008 when I got there. I called a team meeting, because the offense was kind of slumping, and we just cracked jokes and had fun. We loosened up. It wasn't about shouting at these guys, 'You've got to do this you son of a...' I just got up there and we talked about different things, laughed about a couple of things, and everybody shared a couple things, and before you know it we just got hot.

"It ain't always about you jumping down somebody's throat. We were just sitting. Talk to them, see what they're thinking, being that counselor of the ballclub. Just talk to them, and feed them positive things, and it helps out a lot too."

Hunter also understands and preaches the importance of being accountable -- a concept that isn't always a top priority in the Twins clubhouse these days.

"If I can stand here in front of you guys and I'm hot, 10-game hitting streak, I'm hitting homers, I'm doing all those great things and sit and talk to you with my chest out. And then I make a bad play like lose a ball in the sun and I run, it doesn't make sense," Hunter said. "If I sit here during all the good times, then during the bad times I can sit here and take it too.

"I'm just a guy just doing what I have to do. If we lose, I still talk to you. If we win, I talk to you. I give you guys that respect. I respect you guys enough. If I'm there for the good times, I'm going to be there for the bad times."

Nevermind.

Somebody start pooling together $18 million.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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