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Hunter hailed by fans, teammates

Hunter hailed by fans, teammates

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MINNEAPOLIS -- The standing ovations began even before the Twins took the field for Sunday's finale against the White Sox.

Cheers resounded and the crowd rose to its feet when Torii Hunter ran out onto the Metrodome turf for pregame warmups. And the cheers never really stopped.

In what may have been his final game at the Metrodome in a Twins uniform, Hunter received the type of recognition that seemed only fitting for a man who has been considered the face of the Twins franchise for the majority of his nine years with the club.

It was the final ovation of the day, when he was taken out of center field in the top of the ninth inning, which made the normally happy-go-lucky Hunter cry.

"Once I heard the standing ovation, it was like I couldn't hold it in," Hunter said of the tears. "I wish [everyone] could have felt what I felt. I thought I was the toughest guy coming from the 'hood, and here I am crying. There goes my ghetto card -- revoked. But the fans got me today. I love them all."

Hunter is set to be a free agent at the end of the season, and his future is uncertain. The center fielder turned down an initial late-August offer by the Twins for three years at $45 million and said he would wait until the offseason to negotiate again with the club.

It's expected that Hunter will be courted by a number of teams around the league. The six-time Gold Glove winner and two-time All-Star has hit .290 this season with 28 home runs and 104 RBIs.

Officials in the Twins organization have expressed their interest in retaining Hunter, but it's unclear whether they would offer a deal of sufficient duration to keep him. Indications are that Hunter is seeking for five- or six-year pact, and he's made it clear that the length of the contract is important to him.

So, with his future as a member of the Twins uncertain, Sunday was an emotional day for Hunter. On Saturday night, Hunter went for one final dinner at one of his favorite local restaurants, The Capital Grill. Then he spent the night struggling to sleep. He woke up at 5 a.m., unable to focus on anything but what might be his final game.

Hunter said that coming to the Metrodome wasn't easy. But he said he took the opportunity to visit with many of the friendly faces he saw on a daily basis during his final walk through the hallways on Sunday morning.

It was the tear-filled eyes that he saw throughout the day -- from the Metrodome staff to fans and even his teammates -- that were hardest to take.

"I sit here with a smile, but I'm really burning up inside," Hunter said. "It's tough."

Hunter ran into his trademark center field spot for the final time at the start of the ninth inning and spent a few moments by himself in the outfield. After he was joined by his fellow outfielders, manager Ron Gardenhire made the motion to Hunter to exit.

"Taking him out of the ballgame was more as a thank-you for our fans for their appreciation of a great season," Gardenhire said. "We hope to see many, many more of those at the Metrodome with Torii Hunter. That being said, I'm sure it was very emotional for Torii, but it's something I thought our fans deserved and Torii deserved."

Jogging off the field, Hunter raised his cap and waved it in all directions to the cheering crowd around him. Hunter slowed down near the infield to walk the final 100 feet or so to the dugout where all of his teammates waited to greet him with hugs and, yes, a few tears.

Chants of "Torii! Torii!" greeted the center fielder as he took one last curtain call.

"You're not going to get that type of ovation if you are not a class act and a 110-percent player like he is," Nick Punto said. "He's done it for a lot of years, and he definitely deserved that ovation."

At times during the game, the emotion seemed to get the best of Hunter. In his first at-bat, Hunter struck out swinging. And in the third inning, Hunter booted a ball in center field while trying to make a diving catch, giving Josh Fields a triple.

Boos did resound once in the game, but those weren't aimed at Hunter. In Hunter's final at-bat, pitcher Ehren Wassermann intentionally walked the center fielder with first base open.

"In that situation, I had to do it," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. "But that's the last guy I wanted to do it to.

"This kid, every time he takes the field, I think he makes the fans proud to be part of the Minnesota area. Every time he goes out there, he does the best he can to play to his best ability. He's one of the best center fielders in the game. It was a class act."

The day was a fitting end for a player who has meant so much to Minnesota. But the resounding sentiment in the Twins clubhouse was that goodbye is too strong of a word to use just yet.

"I'm not saying goodbye until it's really goodbye," Michael Cuddyer said.

"We're going to do anything we can [to keep him]," Gardenhire added. "As much as these fans love this young man, I think that's going to go a long way in the decision to keep him here. I think he should be a Minnesota Twin for the rest of his life. I don't open the checkbook, but that's my opinion."

And while he appreciated the response from the fans, Hunter isn't closing the chapter just yet either.

"You have to have a little hope there," Hunter said. "Hopefully, we can get something done."

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

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