Torii Hunter … Another View

By Joe Christensen
Updated: February 12, 2007

PROSPER, Tx. — Torii Hunter’s new home sits on 20 acres of land, just down the road from Deion Sanders’ place in the Dallas suburbs. There’s a gated entrance, a man-made lake and a moat that leads to Hunter’s 19,900-square-foot estate.

Last month, Hunter opened the door and flashed his million-watt smile.

He offered a tour of the indoor gymnasium and batting cage, the home theater with the 120-inch projection screen, and the billiard room, where bright lights shine on his Gold Glove trophies.

Surrounded by these riches, the Twins center fielder said his greatest joy is this:

He and his family are safe.

Hunter, 31, lives just a five-hour drive from his hometown of Pine Bluff, Ark., but to him these places are worlds apart.

Pine Bluff is where Hunter once found his father passed out on a crack house floor. It’s where Hunter knew at least 10 people, including several close friends, who were killed in gang shootings. It’s where Hunter joined a gang himself and carried a gun because he thought that was his best chance for survival.

“My whole life,” he said, “my goal was not to get shot and killed.”

After years of glossing over the grim details of his childhood, Hunter has reached a point where he wants the story told. He hopes it will inspire other children from troubled environments.

“No matter what you’re going through, whether your parents are on drugs or even drinking, just don’t use that as an excuse,” Hunter said. “I grew up around gangs, I grew up around dope, and my father wasn’t there for us. But I actually got a positive out of it. I told myself I was never going to be like that.”

Hunter said he was in eighth grade the first time he realized his father, Theotis, had a serious drug problem. It was a day Hunter cannot forget.

Theotis had been missing for weeks, and so had Hunter’s favorite jacket. But one morning, Hunter awoke to find his father asleep on the couch, with that red Chicago Bulls jacket hanging from a chair.

That day in school, Hunter raised his hand to answer a question. Something fell from his jacket pocket.

“I looked down,” Hunter said, “and it was a pipe with crack sprinkled on it.”

Panicked, Hunter asked his teacher for permission to use the restroom.

“I opened the back of the toilet, wiped my fingerprints off with tissue paper, and put the pipe in there, so no one would find it,” Hunter said. “I covered it up and just sat there for a minute, sweating. I couldn’t believe my dad was doing that.”

Even then, however, Hunter knew how prevalent drugs were in his hometown.

Pine Bluff might not sound like the type of place where trouble lurks at every turn.

But Hunter and his friends had a nickname for their old stomping grounds: Pine Box.

As in, “Look the wrong way, you’ll end up in a pine box.”

In 1989, when Hunter was 14, Rand McNally’s “Places Rated Almanac” ranked Pine Bluff as the country’s worst place to live — No. 333 out of 333 cities surveyed.

A city of 55,000 nestled 42 miles south of Little Rock on the Arkansas River, Pine Bluff scored miserably in categories such as jobs, crime and education.

Last month, Hunter’s father seemed to be turning the corner.

Theotis had moved to Texas, where his sons could keep tabs on him, and he’d remained clean for nearly five months.

Theotis even welcomed his own interview for this story, openly discussing his drug problems.

He said he first fell into heroin addiction while serving in the Marines.

After dropping out of college, he served four months in Vietnam but caught hepatitis, spending three months in the hospital before returning home to Pine Bluff.

“I suffered depression and didn’t know it for 30 years,” he said. “They teach you to suppress those things [in the service].”

Theotis acknowledged that he wasn’t the best husband for Torii’s mother, Shirley, or the best father for their four boys. He said he also fathered three children outside the marriage.

“Everybody has some things they’re not proud of in life,” he said. “I’m not proud of some of my past.”

But Theotis remembers happy times, too. That night in Texas, with Hunter’s three brothers looking on, Theotis regaled the group with stories.

At 55, he looked and sounded like an older version of Torii. They have the same gregarious personality, the same contagious laugh.

But later in the evening, Theotis was drinking wine and chain-smoking Newport cigarettes.

Soon, his words sounded cryptic.

“You never know where life is going to take you,” he said. “Sometimes, instead of going straight to the top, you’ve got to go down by the wayside to get there. … If you don’t accept that you might have a detour or something, then you don’t know about life.”

The next day, Theotis returned to Pine Bluff and disappeared again. Another apparent detour. He was missing for three weeks before turning up again in Texas.

“He’s a great guy, man,” Hunter said. “It’s just the fact that we have to keep him out of that environment [in Pine Bluff], away from those different people. I think being here [in Texas] really changed him because there’s a lot of positive things going on.”

Hunter’s mother, Shirley, still keeps a 1969 yearbook photo of Theotis, whose senior classmates voted him their “most pleasing personality.”He’s a great man,” said Shirley, who divorced Theotis in 1999 but remains his close friend. “He has a great heart.”

Theotis was 11 when his own father died after struggling to make a living as a sharecropper. From a young age, Theotis sought a better life for his family.

But when Theotis returned home from the Marines, he was forever changed.

He worked as an electrician for the local railroad company and never overcame his demons. When the paychecks came, it only helped feed his habits.

Shirley started her teaching career commuting 45 minutes to an elementary school in Little Rock each day, trying to keep the family afloat. But more than once the electric company cut power to the house because the bills hadn’t been paid.

“I just tried to keep my head up,” Shirley said. “The boys — they were a big help. You just do what you have to do and make sacrifices.”

As the second-oldest son in the family, Hunter said he looked up to his oldest brother, Taru, almost like a father. Together, they tried to keep the other siblings safe.

These days, there’s a “no trespassing” sign hanging from Hunter’s old, brick house on Belmoor Avenue. Other houses on the same block have bars covering the windows for added protection.

“It’s a pretty good neighborhood,” Hunter’s best friend, Keith Brown, said on a driving tour last month. “But this city can be deceiving. Your neighbor can be a killer.”

Even as Hunter’s athletic career started to blossom, he still faced the grim realities of Pine Bluff: drugs, gangs, shootings, hopelessness.

Hunter said all the boys in his family carried guns.

“Everybody had a gun,” he said. “All of my friends — everybody.”

He described one altercation that started when a rival gang thought he and a friend had killed a boy named Chucky. The two gangs approached each other one night, with several people pulling guns, but it ended in a silent standoff.

Other times, Hunter said, people got shot. Asked if he ever shot a gun himself, Hunter said yes, mentioning an act of self-defense in a carjacking.

For years, Hunter felt compelled to stay in Pine Bluff to help protect his family. Eventually, however, he realized he had to leave and take the others with him.

Hunter said this is why he can relate to modern-day kids who talk about the pull of the gang lifestyle.

“Nobody can tell me that you can’t get away from that,” Hunter said. “All you’ve got to do is want to do it. It’s got to be in your heart.”

Sports became Hunter’s outlet, and his passion was fueled at Pine Bluff High School, an athletic powerhouse.

“The best thing for Torii is he never had to fight that drug problem,” said Brown, who graduated with Hunter in 1993. “He didn’t want to get high. He made sure he separated himself from that.

“He didn’t separate himself from those people, but he said, ‘If that’s what you’re going to do, don’t do it around me.’”

Hunter made the varsity baseball team as a sophomore. That year, the major league scouts who came to watch his senior teammate, Basil Shabazz, couldn’t help but notice the fledgling star in center field.

The Twins made Hunter a first-round draft pick in 1993, signing him with a $450,000 bonus. Shabazz had signed as a third-round pick with the St. Louis Cardinals two years earlier, and both Pine Bluff grads seemed headed for the majors.

But one tangled night in October 1994, Shabazz’s career was derailed.

That fall, after batting .293 for Class A Fort Wayne (Ind.) as a second-year minor leaguer, Hunter returned to Pine Bluff. Theotis went missing again, and this time he took Hunter’s new Ford Explorer.

After four days, Hunter and some friends found the Explorer parked behind a crack house. Hunter broke inside and found his father passed out on the floor.

Hunter was so furious, he started a huge fight, trying to lash out at the people who were helping drag down his dad. That night, Hunter and Shabazz drove to Conway, Ark.

There, police found Shabazz asleep in the Explorer, while Hunter was inside one of the dorms at the University of Central Arkansas.

When the police knocked on the window, Shabazz pulled a .380-caliber pistol. Later, when the police searched the Explorer, they found marijuana and some rolling papers.

Hunter spent a night in jail for possession of a controlled substance. He was released on $2,500 bail.

The charges were later dropped, but the news made headlines, as two top minor league prospects had been busted.

Publicly, Hunter kept his secret for years, but in 2005, he told USA Today Sports Weekly that the drugs found in his Explorer actually belonged to Theotis.

The Twins took Hunter’s word and kept him in their system. The Cardinals released Shabazz, who had been listed the previous spring as their No. 4 prospect.

“I think that was the turning point for me with my dad,” Hunter said. “I think I gave up on him a little bit after that because my career was almost taken away from me because of something he did.

“But as I got older, as I got more mature, I realized that, you know what? You only have one dad. He might have messed up sometimes, but you have to love him.”

Hunter escaped Pine Bluff without getting killed, without going to prison, without getting hooked on drugs.

Still, he knows he wasn’t perfect.

He and his wife, Katrina, started dating in high school. For a while, it was an on-and-off relationship, and Hunter fathered two children by other women.

Hunter now has three middle-school-aged sons, including Torii Jr., who was born to Katrina. Two of the boys live with the Hunters in Texas, and another lives in Detroit.

“I had a son in high school, and I had a son after high school, and that forced me to grow up,” Hunter said. “I said, ‘I can’t be doing that.’ That’s one reason why I married [Katrina] at 21 years old.

“I didn’t have a dad to come and talk to about life — the birds and the bees. I had to learn on the streets. So I vowed to be there for my kids. I want them to tell me everything.”

Hunter and Katrina moved to the Dallas area in 2000. They bought townhouses for each of his three brothers, who now live on the same street a few miles from the Hunter estate.

Theotis was staying there until disappearing again last month. Each time he returns, the Hunters try to rebuild their hope. He’s already been through numerous rehab centers, including an extensive stay in Houston in 2001.

“All we can do,” Hunter said, “is keep trying.”

These experiences have driven Hunter to go above and beyond with his charity work. Besides the Torii & Katrina Hunter Pine Bluff Community Fund, which has raised thousands for their hometown, he started raising money last year to send inner-city baseball teams from around the country to the Little League World Series.

Taru said his brother has been giving back since the days when he didn’t have much to give. One year, when the boys were young, Hunter took half the money Shirley gave him for Christmas and gave it to a homeless man.

“Back then, we called him soft,” Taru said. “He was broke, but he had a good heart. I knew he was going to be blessed.”

NOTE: Staff researcher Roberta Hovde contributed to this report.