Torii Hunter had to get a divorce so he could spend more time with his family.

Torii Hunter had to get a divorce so he could spend more time with his family.

The Pine Bluff native announced his divorce, err retirement, from playing professional baseball two weeks ago after a 19-year career in the Major Leagues.

"Say when you’re with somebody for so long, it’s hard to break up with them," Hunter said in a phone interview with The Commercial last week. "You still think about them. You still hope they’re doing well and different things like that. You see them, you’re kind of happy for them.

"And that’s the way I am with baseball. Yeah, we broke up. It’s over and I don’t want to be with you no more, but I still care for you. And you can’t be with somebody that long and not have a care for them. Unless they’re just bad, and baseball has been very good to me. It’s just time to move on."

In the short-term, the 40-year-old is spending his time enjoying his first real offseason in almost a quarter of a century. A big part of that is seeing the family members he often had to put on the back burner while playing for the Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Angels and Detroit Tigers. Those members include sons Torii Jr. and Money, who currently play college football for Notre Dame and Arkansas State, respectively.

"I’m always spending time going to see my boys play," Hunter said. "For the last two weeks, I’ve been traveling to see Money play at Arkansas State in Jonesboro and fly back to Notre Dame. And Notre Dame like this past weekend played in Philadelphia, so I was out there. It’s just been back and forth and traveling a lot to see my boys play and support those guys.

"It’s about being a dad. I was doing that even before I retired, and I’ve always done that when I had time. Especially during the offseason, I wouldn’t do anything but support my boys and be there for my wife."

It probably seemed like a no-brainer to anyone who knew Hunter closely that he seemed destined for a job in baseball after his playing days ended. The only question was whether it would be in the role of media analyst, coach or front-office management.

"I always thought he’d been an outstanding guy to have on ESPN on SportsCenter every night," longtime friend and former neighbor Jeff Gross said of Hunter. "… I could also see him going back to spring training and helping out with the young players in the Twins organization, or even being a GM or front-office type guy."

During his official retirement announcement on Thursday in Minneapolis, Hunter reportedly said he’s fielded offers from different television networks about analyst positions and had also spoken informally with the Twins general manager Terry Ryan about a role in the organization.

"I always say this door has been closed but other doors are going to be open," Hunter said from his home in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. "Right now I can just kick back and kind of make that decision on what I want to do. So I’m going to sit and pray about it and really think about it and ask God to give some kind of understanding of where I need to be. Wherever I’m need that’s where I will go. I can actually make that decision now after 23 years."

After Pine Bluff, it was clear Minnesota became a home for Hunter. A first-round (20th overall) draft pick for the Twins after his senior year at Pine Bluff High School in 1993, Hunter spent the first 11 of his Major League seasons in the Twin Cities before returning this year for what became a season-long swan song.

"It worked out perfectly, man," Hunter said. "I was very happy to make that decision to go home back to Minnesota, where it all started for me and where I grew. I learned how to be a man in that organization."

Despite saying he started having legitimate thoughts of retirement after the 2013 season, Hunter said he fully expects feelings of nostalgia to creep up when spring training begins in February.

"The human side of me," Hunter said, "I’m pretty sure I’m like anybody else, when you’re used to doing something for so long and when it’s time to do it again, and you might not be doing it anymore, it might hit you a little bit. I’m pretty sure it’s going to hit me in February when spring training starts. .. It’s a no-brainer. I can see what’s going to happen."

Looking at Hunter’s career stats and honors it’s easy to see why he had a hard time pin-pointing a favorite career moment. Hunter finished with a .277 batting average, 353 home runs and 1,391 runs batted in. He earned nine Gold Glove awards for his incredible defensive prowess to go along with five All-Star Game appearances and two Silver Slugger honors.

"I love those awards," Hunter said, "but at the same time, I’m happy that I left a clean legacy and I represent my city and my state — the city of Pine Bluff and the state of Arkansas. I represented it well. I left a good legacy."

The journey to that legacy began when Lloyd Bobo saw Hunter playing baseball in the streets of Pine Bluff and asked him to play on his youth baseball team. Hunter’s natural talent started to get noticed when he was in high school and scouts were coming to watch one of his best friends and teammates, Basil Shabazz, who wound up a third-round draftee of the St. Louis Cardinals.

It was during his time under legendary PBHS coach Billy Bock that Hunter truly emerged as a potentially high draft pick.

"You knew he was gifted, but didn’t know really how good until he got to the ninth- and 10th-grade level; that’s when you knew he could play professional baseball," said Gross, who, along with his brother John, served as a professional baseball scout for the Texas Rangers (1988-93) and Chicago Cubs (93-95).

While Bock’s influence on Hunter during his high school career, which included a state championship in 1992, the coach’s greatest impact on his star pupil may have come four years after Hunter graduated.

"I’ll never forget, when I got called up to the Major Leagues in 1997, and I was struggling a little bit," Hunter said. "He called me and said, ‘Damn, Torii, you can’t hit water, if you fell out of a boat.’ I thought that was the most inspiring thing he’s ever said. That was so funny to me. Right there I was feeling down and he lifted me back up. … My career just kind of took off from there."

And ever since then, Hunter has been viewed as a true hero for those in his hometown. Sure, he could hit a baseball far and rob home runs with the best of them, but it was his willingness to give back to the impoverished community from which he escaped that has endeared him to many.

He’s made tangible differences with his financial contributions and public support of causes in Pine Bluff, while also serving as a beacon of hope for those growing up on the streets he once played baseball.

"First and foremost he’s given kids the ability they can make it out," said Carlos James, one of Hunter’s closest friends and coach of the Arkansas-Pine Bluff baseball team. "As far as financial contributions to people or things in the area, his name is on the (baseball) stadium at UAPB and (football) field at Pine Bluff High School, he helped with the lights at Taylor Field and money for the Bock Building.

"But there are thousands of people he’s helped and nobody knows about it. Truth be told it would probably blow your mind."

With his retirement from playing, Hunter said he hopes to visit Pine Bluff more often. But chances are he’ll end up with a job back in the game, sooner or later, because when it’s meant to be, even a divorce can’t stop true love.

"I tell everybody, I was married to the game more than my family," Hunter said. "It was amazing, man. People were like, oh, man, he’s so dedicated and this and that. No, man, I was too married to this game. Too married, I had to break up with her and divorce her."