MINNEAPOLIS -- Few players in the recent history of Minnesota sports have been as intensely beloved as Torii Hunter.
Hunter's dazzling smile, infectious enthusiasm and steadfast leadership were some of the cornerstones of the Twins' run to four AL Central titles in five years from 2002-06. Just nine months after his retirement, Hunter's 12 years of service to the Minnesota Twins were commemorated with his official induction into the Twins Hall of Fame in a pregame ceremony Saturday.
"When I was drafted, I was hoping to just have one day in the big leagues, but I was blessed to play 19 years, and now to be inducted into the Twins Hall of Fame, I am extremely, extremely grateful," Hunter said in his speech. "This goes to show you, if you work hard, no matter what obstacles are in your way, you can reach your dreams and goals."
Hunter, a five-time All-Star and nine-time Gold Glove Award winner, became the 27th member of the Twins Hall of Fame. In the Twins' all-time standings, he ranks seventh in hits (1,343), seventh in doubles (281), fifth in home runs (214), sixth in RBIs (792) and seventh in games played (1,373).
"To the Twins Hall of Fame committee, I'd like to thank you for thinking of me, and thinking me worthy of being in the Twins Hall of Fame," Hunter continued. "Fooled you guys!"
His influence was felt far beyond the field. He has been a prominent figure in the community in Minnesota, California and his native Arkansas. Among other activities, he established the Torii Hunter Project to contribute to sports, health and education initiatives.
For his efforts, he was awarded the Branch Rickey Award in 2009, recognizing excellence in charity work.
"He's symbolic of a lot of things we try to do here, in the way he played, the way he handled himself, the way he gave back to the community," said Twins manager Paul Molitor, who played alongside Hunter from 1997-98 and managed him in 2015. "Certainly talented, but it goes way beyond that with him in terms of character, and other ways he's been able to influence other people, other players and certainly he's given back in a lot of different ways off the field."
Hunter spent his first 11 seasons with the Twins before he was signed as a free agent by the Angels in 2008. He spent five seasons with Los Angeles and two with Detroit before returning to Minnesota for the 2015 campaign to retire as a Twin.
According to Hunter, his heart remained in Minnesota throughout his extended absence.
"I'd been thinking about these guys in the seven years I was gone," Hunter said. "All I could think about was the Minnesota Twins. I was always watching to see what these guys were doing and calling guys. Just to come back home and play in front of the fans I grew up with, I know it was true love. I really appreciate it. I missed it, so I came back to get that feeling again.
"I look around, and I think, 'Man, what did I do to deserve these people?'"
In his return, he was the vocal clubhouse leader of last season's resurgent Twins squad that was in the playoff chase until the final week of the campaign.
Despite his wide-reaching contributions to the Twins and the Minnesota community, Hunter was still surprised that his invitation to the Hall of Fame came so soon after his retirement.
"I'm still shocked that I was nominated and voted in this early," he said before the ceremony. "I'm very appreciative and I'm honored. I'm happy. [It] will be a special day. I hope I don't cry too much."
The Twins will also induct longtime radio broadcaster John Gordon in a ceremony preceding Sunday's game.