True Grit

Does anyone really take the All-Star voting seriously anymore? Even fans who still profess to love the All-Star game itself (Where are you? There you are!) know that just about any starting line-up for either league is going to be too, too whack. Add to that the desperate marketing tool that was the five-man runoff for the final AL spot--no online shenanigans there--and the rosters are bound feel as meaningless as that contest that ended in a tie a few years back.

That said, it's still a shame that Torii Hunter didn't make it to the game.

The last couple seasons, I've come to view Hunter as a figurehead for the team more than as a truly valuable ballplayer. Considering his great knack for homing in on fly balls and his temerity at the plate, I've often found myself wondering what Hunter could do in the defensive backfield for the Vikings.

(Hunter has admitted that he might have been a better football player in high school--as a D-back of the football variety--than baseball player. And it's not hard to see why.)

That's why it's been a welcome surprise to see Hunter play this year. It may seem odd, given that he's probably the most visible player the franchise has had in the last 10 years, but be honest: The love of Hunter comes more from his off-field charisma than any earth-shattering feats on the diamond. Especially at the plate.

This season has been different. It's not so much that his stats are all-star worthy (he put up good numbers when he made the game in 2002), it's that he's made it his mission to put the team on his shoulders whenever possible.

(Hunter leads the team in home runs, stolen bases and RBIs, and his .277 batting average is more than acceptable. But even that doesn't mean much on this passable-at-the-plate Twins team. Still, he's on pace to hit 25 more RBIs than last year.)

It's a cliche that real players do things that don't show up in the box score, but in this case, that's been true of Hunter. For starters, he's been dropping leadership quotes in the clubhouse all season. One particularly poignant one came after the Twins played a game in practice jerseys, without the player names on the back. Hunter hinted that the team might continue to do so until they snapped out of a slump, saying "We're going to earn the names."

Hunter has hinted that some of the younger players (read: Justin Morneau) are afraid to play hurt, or have been too casual in the field (Morneau again).

And at the beginning of the season, Hunter vowed that the team (that means Hunter) would be more aggressive on the base paths. He's made good on that, ranking among AL leaders in stolen bases.

In fact, it's when Hunter is on base that he becomes a man on a mission. Nobody is more adept at advancing an extra base right now than Hunter, and teams know it. He's been especially good at rattling opposing pitchers when he's on first or second. Two weeks ago, during an 11-8 home win against Kansas City, one of the more compelling sideshows was watching Hunter toy with J.P. Howell with a wide lead after he had stolen second.

(Nothing immediately came of it, but Howell only lasted 3 1/3 innings.)

None of this should come as praise for a team's supposed star, one with an all-star game already under his belt and four Gold Gloves in his trophy case. But it's looked for a while that Hunter might be the sort of player that gets put on a pedastal to sell tickets, then flickers out without a meaningful season or a memorable career. It's the difference between, say, a Matt Lawton or a Kent Hrbek.

At the very least, for three months this season, Hunter's shown the determination of a winner.

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