EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 21, 2006

Ortiz might lure Hunter to Sox

On Baseball

BOSTON - The comment, which appears at first glance to be an insult, might just be the compliment which brings Torii Hunter to the Red Sox next season.

"Trust me, David weighs in a lot," Hunter said yesterday before his Twins routed the Sox bullpen in a 8-2 victory. "He's 300 pounds."

The declaration has absolutely nothing to do with the girth of David Ortiz and everything to do with how much of an influence the Sox slugger might have in helping bring the five-time Gold Glove outfielder to Fenway Park.

Hunter, one of baseball's most gregarious and slick-fielding players, is in line to hit the free-agent market this offseason if Minnesota doesn't pick up his $12 million option. It is a tricky situation for the usually cash-strapped Twins, whose payroll stands at about $64 million.

The 31-year-old center fielder is hitting .275 with 28 home runs - including a three-run shot last night - but might be just expensive enough to allow for a foray into free agency. Boston is likely at the top of his list because of Ortiz, whom he has known since 1997 when both played for the Twins in the Instructional League.

A sign that Hunter has warmed up to Boston, despite suffering a season-ending ankle injury at Fenway last year, was that he took the Red Sox off his list of teams he could block deals to, limiting the group to the Cubs, Detroit, Tampa Bay and Toronto.

"It means a lot. It weighs in big-time," said Hunter, referring to Ortiz's presence when potentially picking a new team. "With him being over here, with his personality, knowing what he's like in the clubhouse, the guy's the greatest. I love him to death. If it came down to it, I think it might work. You never know."

And if that time ever comes where Hunter is forced to pick a new team, it might be a decision swayed heavily by the Twins' seemingly innocuous Tuesday night win at Fenway.

It was a game in which Hunter was exposed to the fanaticism of the Sox's following throughout the rain-soaked night, an evening which allowed the outfielder to have dinner with Ortiz and continue to hear about the how good it can be in Boston.

"He just tells me the fans are fans. There's no bandwagon," Hunter said. "He's like, 'These fans are fans, win, lose or draw.' I'm like, 'Really? 'I've never heard of that.' It was raining (Tuesday night) and they still had 30-plus (thousand) in the stands. Anywhere else, the fans would have went home. I saw it (Tuesday night).

"I'm actually watching these things. I'm focused on my job and I'm not worrying about the offseason, but I'm human. It's back there (in my mind) because I'm human."

For Hunter and Ortiz, the reunion would be perfect. The Twins outfielder, who is going with his wife to visit Ortiz in the Dominican Republic this offseason, clearly embraces every chance he gets to reminisce about the Sox designated hitter, as is evidenced by the story he tells regarding one of their first encounters.

"Here's this 6-foot-4 guy, wearing size 91/2 shoes," said Hunter of his Instructional League encounter. "I'm like, 'What's wrong?' He said, 'My feet are killing me, man.' Every game he complained about this for a week and a half. Finally, he showed me his shoe. I said, 'You don't wear a 91/2.' So there it was, 1997 and he finally figured out he wears a 121/2. His feet were curling up in a 91/2 all that time."

The question remains, would Hunter and the Red Sox mix well? When asked if he would consider playing right field, Hunter said, "The day I don't play center field is the day I retire."

Hunter's insistence has to be taken into account, considering the Red Sox have a center fielder in Coco Crisp, whose arm isn't considered good enough to play right field at Fenway, and a superstar in left in the form of Manny Ramirez.

But, as Hunter is quick to point out, a lot can change in the months to come. It is still widely believed around baseball that Crisp's best position might be left field, where he played the majority of his games for Cleveland. And if a deal is struck involving Ramirez, the potential for an outfield consisting of both Crisp and Hunter would be in line with Boston's new emphasis on defense.

However, it might all be a moot point if Minnesota decides Hunter is worth picking up his option. But we at least know one member of the Red Sox who is hoping Boston at least gets a crack at the former All-Star.

"He loves it," said Hunter of Ortiz's feelings for Boston. "We talk about it all the time. He was like, 'If they don't pick up your option, make sure you talk to us.' There's not too many guys who I get along with like him who are also on a winning team, and have a chance to win every year.

"He's my brother and my buddy. I trust him with all my heart."