In the summer of 1997, Torii Hunter lay in the backseat of a car in the parking lot of a minor-league baseball stadium in New Britain, Connecticut. He was 20 years old and 1,300 miles away from home.
“There’s no family there, no friends. I don’t know anybody in Connecticut,” Hunter recalled Sunday. “But I’m sleeping in this car.”
The $500,000 signing bonus he received after the Minnesota Twins drafted him in the first round of the 1993 Major League Baseball draft out of Pine Bluff High School was gone. He had wanted to save his family and friends from financial strain — but he wanted to do it while also throwing big parties.
Tears streaming down his face, he spent the summer nights staring at the roof of the car, praying to God.
“Why am I in this situation?” he asked. “I can’t believe I’m in this situation.”
The future, in which, according to baseballreference.com, Hunter went on to play 19 years in the majors, win nine Gold Glove Awards, make five All-Star Game appearances and earn $171 million in career salary, looked far from certain.
The Almighty eventually answered.
“These are the consequences,” Hunter said, “for not being the good steward for what He has blessed me with.”
During the keynote speech at the Justice Sunday Program at First Assembly of God Church, Hunter spoke about how he did not make the same mistake again. It was part of a talk in which he stressed the importance of mentors and the need to listen to advice and act on it.
Hunter’s appearance highlighted the second-to-last day of KingFest, a week-long celebration of the late civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy sponsored by Interested Citizens for Voter Registration. The events included community service and interracial cooperation, culminating in a marade/parade downtown for which Hunter was named the marshal.
The celebration of King’s legacy came after the recent elections of Pine Bluff’s first black female mayor and the first black Jefferson County judge. But it also came amid concerns about the state of racial dialogue on the national level.
“We are living in mean times,” one pastor said during a prayer for local, state and national leaders, noting that King was no longer around to lead, although God was.
One of the speakers was Irene Holcomb, an educator, business owner and the first black woman to serve on the Pine Bluff City Council, who marched during the Civil Rights Movement.
“People ask, ‘Is the Civil Rights Movement still going?’” Holcomb said. “Yes it is.”
Many remember the great strides in voting rights and freedoms achieved during the 1960s, she said. In those days, they sang the same hymns in church as they did today, she said. Calling mentorship “the lifeblood of the community,” she urged the audience of several hundred people to mentor a young person, to let them know that all work is honorable.
She praised Hunter as an example of someone who never forgot his roots. Hunter and his wife, Katrina, have been active philanthropists in Pine Bluff. Hunter, who retired in 2015, has donated to youth baseball and softball in Pine Bluff and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff's baseball stadium is named for him.
Hunter was chosen as keynote speaker, ICVR executive director the Rev. Jesse Turner wrote in a news release, “because he has demonstrated his concern for youngsters and their academic success, but more importantly, his involvement in and dedication to improving the well-being of others through service, which exemplifies the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
After an introduction by his father, Theotis Hunter, the former baseball player strode to the stage. He presented a muscular, boisterous figure behind the church pulpit, frequently interlacing his advice with jokes and laughter.
After sleeping in the car for several weeks, Hunter said, he was called up later that summer to the majors. Chastened by his period of homelessness, he sought out a financial advisor and began meeting monthly to draw up a budget and discuss financial literacy.
“It sounded like Japanese at first, but my heart was open to it,” he recalled. He remembered the nights in the car, being broke, growing up in Pine Bluff in difficult circumstances. “Then I started to understand it. Then I applied it to my life. I learned that if you don’t dig a hole, or you want to get out of a hole, all you’ve gotta do is stop digging.”
The financial advisor stayed with him, one of many mentors who helped Hunter along the way.
“I didn’t do all this by myself,” he said of his success. “Somebody had to help me. We need others to help us understand where we need to go, what we need to get there, and how to make it happen.”
Young man turns pro
It started with his grandfather, a former amateur baseball player who broke down Cubs games with his eight-year-old grandson after school days at the Indiana Street School. He taught Hunter why pitchers threw certain pitches and why hitters swung at others. He took him in the yard and showed him how to grip a ball and a bat and how to swing. A Little League coach introduced him to organized baseball after seeing him play with some other boys. Schoolteachers kept him in line. His parents, Hunter said, observed the maxim, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” When he was running around with his friends, and some suggested stealing cars, he decided he was tired of the rod.
His high school coach, Billy Bock, once forced him to run for nearly an hour after Hunter came late to practice. Then he called him over and leaned in close to his young star. “‘Whenever you’re on time, you’re late,’” he said, Hunter recalled. “‘Whenever you’re early, you’re on time.’ You know what? All my years in pro ball, I’ve never been late. Never.”
An early professional coach, Jerry White, taught Hunter how to play outfield when he reached the pros, and also taught him “how to be a man.” The second of Hunter’s nine Gold Gloves resides with White, as gratitude for his help, Hunter said. Ebullient Twins Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett formed the model of how Hunter would carry himself as a professional: always lighting up a room, treating everyone the same and making time for them, whether they were the club owner or the janitor. Rod Carew, one of the greatest hitters ever, taught Hunter how to hit pro pitching by setting up pitchers and working a count to read situations.
Harmon Killebrew, a Hall of Famer also known as “Killer” or “Hammerin’ Harmon,” gave Hunter a very simple piece of advice: “When you sign your autograph, hit every letter.” Killebrew explained it like this: 150 years from now, if some kids playing in the woods find a ball you autographed that is blurry or illegible, they’ll pick it up and use it to play with. If, however, it clearly says “T-O-R-I-I H-U-N-T-E-R,” well then they’ll Google the name, find out you were pretty good, and put it up on the mantle to cherish.
“So I went and I worked on that autograph like crazy,” Hunter said. “And to this day, I have all of the fans, all of the players, all of the card companies, they all come to me and say you’ve got one of the nicest autographs in Major League Baseball. And they also say hey, thanks for taking the time to sign your autograph with care and love.”
One game, after a disappointing, inning-ending strikeout, Hunter jogged back on defense to find the opposing center fielder, Ken Griffey, Jr., waiting for him. Griffey told the young outfielder that he was going to be a good player, and he needed to learn to shake off mistakes because they were inevitable. The lesson stayed with him, Hunter said.
“I tell kids all the time, ‘Failure is your friend. Failure is what makes you. Failure is what builds you up.’ But failure will also expose you. If… you don’t get up, your life is gonna show it.
“If you figure out what you did wrong and make the adjustment, your life is gonna get better.”
Before a person is capable of receiving wisdom, though, he argued, he or she must heal from past pain, confront those who inflicted it and then forgive them.
“All you young people who need help,” he said. “If you don’t get rid of a lot of stuff that’s in your heart, things that you’re going through—‘My mom did this,’ ‘My dad [did] that,’ ‘I’m being bullied’—tell somebody. Don’t try to keep that in your heart. It can be devastating.”
A problem cannot be solved without acknowledging its existence, Hunter said, and someone who has hurt another may not even know it.
“Nobody can ever adequately pay you back for the pain, the tears you’ve shed, the sleepless nights, and the years you’ve lost. So you must forgive them to move forward in life. Once you’ve gotten out of that prison, you’ll be a much better mentor and mentee. Our motto is, my wife and I, God blessed us to be a blessing. And that should be yours as well.”
Hunter said change only comes from a change in mindset.
“[If you say,] ‘Oh, I’m not smart enough.’ Then you’re not smart enough. ‘Oh, I’m black, I can’t make it.’ Then you’ll never make it. ‘Oh, I ain’t got no money, I never have no money.’ You’ll never have no money. Your life will follow your thinking.”
He concluded with a call for unity to improve the city.
“We all need to come together to rebuild our city,” he said. “Pine bluff is our home. I know we need to get on the same page. I’m not a politician. I’m not a pastor. I’m just plain old Torii. If we come together, I know we can do big things. Divided we fall, but united we stand.”