Improving chemistry Hunter's mission

Hunter's leadership, health big keys to season

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Looking around the Twins clubhouse at Hammond Stadium when he reported for Spring Training on Thursday, Torii Hunter couldn't help but be surprised at what he saw.

"There are a lot of new faces in here and a lot of guys I don't really know their names," Hunter said. "It's kind of different for me because I'm used to having Jacque [Jones], J.C. [Romero] and those guys around, the guys that I grew up with in the Minors. We've got a lot of new guys this year, so it's going to take awhile to get that chemistry together."

Hunter's assessment may have been a little skewed with the increased number of Twins Minor Leaguers invited to this year's Spring Training, but there is no doubt that chemistry will be a major theme of the Minnesota clubhouse this season.

Turnover has been something Hunter has had to get used to as part of the Twins organization, but this year appears even more so with at least one-third of the team's lineup likely to be new additions. Combine that with the amount of young players that emerged as starters only last season, and it makes for quite a drastic change in the makeup from the club that won three straight division titles in 2002-04. The change in the team hasn't escaped manager Ron Gardenhire either.

"Only about five or six guys are left that were here during my first year of managing," Gardenhire said. "That's pretty big turnover. And only Torii left of the position players -- that's amazing."

While there are even more new players joining the club this year, it was really last season that the drastic amount of changes on the team seemed to catch up with the Twins. The clubhouse chemistry was far different than in Gardenhire's early years of managing. Between the team pressing to increase run production and falling out of the playoff hunt, the cohesiveness that had been in the Twins locker room early in the season disappeared near the end.

"It's not always going to work," Gardenhire said of a team's chemistry. "Our clubhouse hasn't always been perfect in Minnesota."

Perfect it may not have been, but the strife that occurred near the end of last season wasn't near normal. From incidents between Hunter and first baseman Justin Morneau where punches were almost thrown to pitcher Kyle Lohse taking a bat to Gardenhire's door and Romero snubbing the Twins skipper by dropping the ball as he came off the mound, there was more than usual dissension within the locker room toward the end of 2005. Part of the breakdown in chemistry seemed to be a divide between the younger players and the veterans.

That separation seemed to intensify once Hunter went down with a broken left ankle in July. It's something that baffled Hunter a bit, but not some of the younger players that were left without one of the most vocal leaders on the club.

"Without him, at the end of the season, we did get separated," shortstop Jason Bartlett said of the split between younger and veteran players. "Torii was the guy that would say something if things got out of hand and without him there, no one stepped up to do the same thing."

Being a leader of the club is a role Hunter has embraced over his career, but never has it seemed as important as it does this season. Hunter knows his experience on the team is something that will be counted upon.

"I'm like that old monk that they go to for wisdom," Hunter said with a chuckle. "I haven't really been here that long ,but I have been with this organization for 13 years. It really is like a family to me."

Creating a family atmosphere again is one of the goals for the entire squad as the strife of last season is not something Hunter or his teammates want repeated. Most of the rifts appear to have been patched up over the offseason. Hunter and Morneau moved on from their incident at TwinsFest while Lohse and Gardenhire have seemed to smooth over the tension that existed between them in September.

But while many of the players and coaches have seemed to move on from last year's drama, a new challenge arises in their attempt to develop chemistry during Spring Training -- the World Baseball Classic. The Twins face losing at least eight players for various periods of time due to the event. Key starters like first baseman Morneau, closer Joe Nathan, and pitcher Johan Santana are amongst those participating in the tournament. New additions Luis Castillo, Dennys Reyes, as well as young pitcher Francisco Liriano who hasn't spent much time at the big league level will also be missing time at camp to go compete for their various countries.

Hunter for one wishes that none of the team would leave.

"Spring Training is for getting in shape, knowing your teammates and forming a chemistry," Hunter said.

Though Hunter won't get his wish granted, he will be the main guy counted on to help blend together a mix of players that haven't had much time together. He knows the first step to accomplishing it will be a new approach to the year and forgetting everything that happened last season. That first step will be a players-only meeting at the end of March.

"We'll meet just us players -- no coaches," Hunter said. "We'll just talk ourselves and clear some things up. Last year was last year and now it's time to look forward."

Count Gardenhire among those who feel if anyone can help lead the way into a new perspective for the year, it's Hunter.

"He's got that certain air about him, an aura that people look up to," Gardenhire said. "Between him coming in the clubhouse, motivating guys, not backing down from anybody, standing up and pointing the finger out at the field -- he's our leader."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.