LAKELAND, Fla. — Torii Hunter’s plan this season seems pretty obvious: Detroit’s new right fielder is going to try to smile his way to the World Series.
"You don’t want to look back on your career and say, ‘I didn’t have enough fun,’" Hunter said Thursday at the Tigers’ spring training complex.
The 37-year-old Pine Bluff native is already living up to his reputation as one of the game’s most engaging people. Detroit starts full-squad workouts Friday, but Hunter was in the clubhouse a day earlier, laughing it up with ace Justin Verlander as if the two had grown up together.
Nearby, designated hitter Victor Martinez was talking to reporters — but the hooting and hollering in the background was hard to ignore.
"When I first came up with the Indians, I used to play against (Hunter) in Minnesota," Martinez said. "He told me one thing when I was a rookie, and I have never forgot: ‘Don’t ever lose your smile. No matter what happens, just keep smiling and keep enjoying the game.’"
Hunter played 10 seasons with the Twins and five with the Los Angeles Angels, but he’s never been to the World Series. Detroit needed a right fielder, and he signed a two-year deal with the Tigers in November — pretty early in the free agent period.
Detroit has won two AL Central titles in a row and went to the World Series last year, where the Tigers lost to the San Francisco Giants. Now Hunter joins a clubhouse full of confident stars, led by a manager who knows how to avoid drama even when the scrutiny intensifies.
"All those guys are so down to earth. It’s easy to fit in," Hunter said. "This team was already great without me, so that’s why I chose here. If you can’t beat ‘em, you’ve got to join ‘em."
Hunter and Tigers manager Jim Leyland already have a relationship. The two would talk behind the batting cage when their teams faced each other — Hunter liked kidding the skipper for wearing spikes.
"I think that’s actually how we became friends," Leyland said. "I’ve probably talked to him as much as I have any opposing player I ever managed against. I don’t know. We just hit it off."
As much as the Tigers enjoy Hunter’s personality, he’s being paid to hit. Detroit struggled at times last year because sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder were carrying too much of the burden offensively. Martinez’s return from a knee injury should help, and Hunter is coming off a season in which he hit a career-best .313 with 16 home runs.
If Hunter hits second, in front of Cabrera and Fielder, he’ll have a lot of responsibility. Hunter grounded into 15 double plays last year, and the Tigers will certainly want to avoid those when their two best hitters are due up.
"Hitting second, you’ve got to really work the count, let your guy in front of you steal bases," Hunter said. "I can kind of just be patient, hit the ball up the middle, hit it to the right side — not a hard swing because the guys behind me are going to swing harder."
Hunter is proud of his consistency. Before last year, he had hit at least 21 homers in six straight seasons. Hunter also won nine consecutive Gold Gloves from 2001-09 before eventually switching from center field to right.
Hunter says he’s not a "forceful" person, but with his teammates already gravitating toward him, it’s easy to anticipate the newcomer becoming a mentor to other players in the clubhouse as spring training progresses.
Opening day is still several weeks away, but already, Hunter has a lot to be happy about. He said his wife was even with him in Florida. After joking that he was going to take her to McDonald’s, Hunter said the two had plans for a nice Valentine’s Day evening.
"It’s Valentine’s Day every day. Every man out there, you should have Valentine’s Day every day," he said. "It shouldn’t be just today. All right? Love."