The Teflon Torii Hunter

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I was reading Joel Sherman’s column today at the Post and I came across this bit:

Torii Hunter has only enhanced his reputation as a clubhouse gem and clutch player this year — his three-run, walk-off homer yesterday carried Detroit over Oakland.

Sherman mentions Hunter in furtherance of his months-old argument that the Yankees should have signed him this past offseason. Maybe they should have. He’s having a great season.  But I can’t get past that “clubhouse gem” line. Hunter is almost always described this way. As one of the best guys in the game. But you’ll notice that the people who describe him that way are all in the media.

There’s a good reason for this: Hunter is famously accommodating and pleasant with the media. He gives great interviews, is always available and eschews athlete cliches. And it’s more than just giving pithy quotes. He says funny and interesting stuff that is also illuminating. I can’t imagine a player I’d want on a team I was covering more than Hunter because he would make my job way easier.

But is he a “clubhouse gem?”  Just last week we heard about how he once had to be physically restrained from going after Albert Pujols. From the sound of it Pujols was more factually in the wrong about the underlying dispute, but Hunter took what should have been a verbal disagreement and turned it into a physical one. That same report alleges that while in Minnesota Hunter threw a punch at Justin Morneau. Add this to his comments revealing a teammate’s personal problems to the media, voicing his displeasure with the notion of having a gay teammate and calling Dominican ballplayers “impostors” who should not be counted as black when talking about the racial makeup of baseball teams.

None of which is to say that Hunter is a bad person. He’s got strong opinions and passion and even if you disagree with him on the merits he is honest about his convictions and beliefs. As for the dustups with Pujols and his Twins teammates, I’m sure that stuff happens more than we know in Major League clubhouses. Especially late in seasons when teams are struggling. And of course he is a fine ballplayer.  Hunter is probably like a lot of other major leaguers in all of these respects.

But I can’t think of any other major leaguer who has had these sorts of dustups who is so consistently called a great clubhouse guy, wonderful person, etc. The media usually kills guys who have had way fewer controversies about them than Hunter has had. Guys who have issues with teammates, who talk out of turn about them, who say controversial things about race and the like are usually treated like problems or head cases or high-maintenance guys. Not Hunter. He is not just immune to this, he is actually held above almost all other players in the deportment department by the media which covers him.

I suppose it’s crude of me to say that the reason for this is that he is incredibly pleasant and accommodating to the media and makes their job easier. That he gets a free pass on this stuff because he’s well-liked by the people who don’t give such free passes to others who do what he does. That this is merely the flipside of the stuff I mentioned about Yasiel Puig last week: that the more separate and apart or otherwise unaccessible a player is to the reporters who cover him the more likely he is to be given less charitable assessments. Hunter is the anti-Puig in this respect.

I like Hunter. I think he’s a great ballplayer and I don’t think considerably less of him than any other player simply because, for the most part, I don’t care what players say or do when they aren’t playing. But the folks who do make those sorts of judgments as a rule — the ones who decide who are great clubhouse guys and who aren’t — always seem to give him a free pass. And it’s fascinating to me.

Young Blue Jays say they aren’t intimidated by top seed Rays

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) When the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays opened the pandemic-delayed season a little over two months ago, there was little to indicate the AL East rivals might meet again to begin the playoffs.

While the Rays launched the truncated 60-game schedule with expectations of making a strong bid for their first division title in a decade, the Blue Jays generally were viewed as an immensely talented young team still years away from postseason contention.

Tampa Bay didn’t disappoint, shrugging off a slow start to go a league-best 40-20 and claim the No. 1 seed in the AL playoffs that begin Tuesday.

Lefty Blake Snell, who’ll start Game 1 of the best-of-three wild-card series against Toronto at Tropicana Field, also isn’t surprised that the eighth-seeded Blue Jays earned a spot, too.

The Rays won six of 10 games between the teams during the regular season, but were outscored 48-44 and outhomered 17-11.

And while Toronto (32-28) lacks the playoff experience Tampa Bay gained last season when the Rays beat Oakland in the AL wild-card game before falling to Houston in the divisional round, the Blue Jays are building with exciting young players such as Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

“They’ve got a lot of young guys who can ball over there,” Snell said. “It’s going to be fun to compete and see how we do.”

Rays defensive whiz Kevin Kiermaier said Tampa Bay, in the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the second time franchise history, will not take the Blue Jays lightly.

“We know we’re playing a real good team,” Kiermaier said. “It’s not going to be easy, regardless of what a team is seeded.”

The Blue Jays, who’ll start right-hander Matt Shoemaker, aren’t conceding anything.

Bichette said he and his teammates respect how good Tampa Bay is, but are not intimidated by facing the No. 1 seed.

“I would say that we didn’t care who we played. I would say that we didn’t mind playing Tampa, that’s for sure. We’re familiar with them. We’ve played them well,” Bichette said.

“I think we’re confident in our ability against them. Our talent matches up well,” Bichette added. “We think if we play well we’ve got a good chance.”

NO FANS

The stands at Tropicana Field will be empty, leaving players to wonder what the atmosphere will be like for the playoffs.

Tampa Bay routinely rank at or near the bottom of the majors in attendance, but usually pack the stands in the domed stadium during the postseason.

“It will be different,” Bichette said. “Normally when you think of your first postseason you think 40,000, you think about not being able to think it’s so loud, stuff like that.”

The Blue Jays open the playoffs near where they hold spring training in Dunedin, Florida. It’s been a winding road for Toronto, which played its home games in Buffalo, New York, at the site of its Triple-A affiliate after the Canadian government barred the Blue Jays from hosting games at their own stadium because of coronavirus concerns.

CONFIDENT RAYS

Tampa Bay’s five-game loss to Houston in last year’s divisional round was a source of motivation during the regular season.

“It definitely lit a fire under everybody. It really showed us we belong. … We gave them a tough series,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said.

“We won the wild-card game. We belong in the postseason. I think that did a lot for us to understand that we should be in the postseason and we can go a lot farther. We know what to expect this time around. I think everyone in our clubhouse expects to be playing until the end of October,” he said.

CLOSE FRIENDS

Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash has the Rays in the playoffs for the second time. His close friend and former Rays third base and bench coach Charlie Montoyo is in his second year as manager of the Blue Jays, who last made the playoffs in 2016.

“Pretty special,” Cash said of his relationship with Montoyo.

“I really learned a lot from him being around him. The way he carried himself. His hand print is throughout this organization,” Cash added. “A pretty big impact and a positive one. … When they clinched I talked to him, we face-timed at 1:30 in the morning. I’m so happy for him.”