Former Notre Dame WR Torii Hunter Jr. catching on to minor league life

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND —There are moments when Torii Hunter Jr., allows himself to envision what life will look like when baseball ends.

Not in vivid detail. Not with one foot out the door. Not yet.

“The minor league lifestyle is definitely rough,” said the former Notre Dame football wide receiver, back in town Monday as a member of the Burlington (Iowa) Bees Class A baseball team.

“You learn to be frugal. You learn to trim fat where you can. Once you see that $300 check — or whatever — come in, it’s like, ‘All right, some stuff has to change.’ ”

At least he has a choice whether to persevere. and there have been days, since he pushed a possible pro football future off the front burner and into the “what-if” pile roughly 18 months ago, that it felt like baseball was never going to love him back as much as he loved it.

Monday at Four Winds Field was not one of those days.

Hunter started in right field, batted third for the L.A. Angels’ affiliate and went 1-for-4 with a walk and a run scored in the first of a three-game series against the host South Bend Cubs. Along the way he got roughly the same tepid reception from the crowd as any of the other Bees, and seemed to love every minute of it.

He came in sporting a season-high .283 batting average, thanks in part to a .409 hot streak to start May and an even more torrid late April.

It was reminiscent of his 52 games last summer with the Orem (Utah) Owlz at the rookie League level. There, Hunter ranked in the top five in the Pioneer League in batting average (.352) and on-base percentage (.432), 11th in runs scored (48) and seventh in stolen bases (13).

But on April 21 of this year, he was scuffling, with a .125 batting average and .150 slugging percentage, a slump he credits to the end of to eliminating a leg kick as part of his swing.

And last year about this time he was initially assigned to the equivalent of baseball purgatory, extended spring training, rather than an affiliate. Hunter was grateful those stats aren’t published, as he was able to labor mightily in relative anonymity.

“There were definitely doubts in my head, because I was struggling,” he said about his career path. “I didn’t feel like I was out there competing. Then, I don’t know, something clicked. Maybe it was the competitor in me.”

From that point on, Hunter became committed to seeing wherever the baseball journey would take him for the long term.

So is Torii’s wife, Selina Hunter Bell, a world-class model taking a career hiatus after giving birth to the couple’s first child (Torii “Tres” Hunter III) on Christmas Day and currently living in a Southeastern Iowa town of roughly 25,000.

“They like it, because I’m there, because they get to see me every day,” Torri said of Selina and Tres. “And that’s the most important thing —being with your family. They don’t care where it is, but they enjoy being around me.”

Even when the dream turns dark at times.

Maybe Hunter’s intermittent growing pains were largely the product of inactivity.

The oldest son of former Major League All-Star outfielder Torii Hunter Sr. doubled up in baseball and football for two of his four years in South Bend, but he garnered just 12 official at-bats between his junior year at Prosper (Texas) High in 2012 and his first professional spring training game at-bat roughly five years later.

A broken leg suffered in January of 2013 in a football high school all-star game practice wiped out his senior high school baseball season, after which he was drafted in the 36th round by the Detroit Tigers.

The injury also deferred his football debut by a year and was followed by more injuries, including a head injury in 2016 that ultimately coaxed him toward baseball.

Hunter passed on baseball his freshman season at ND, but went out in both 2015 and 2016, working practices and games around his spring football commitment both seasons.

His college career stats totaled seven strikeouts in his 12 at-bats, spread over 23 games played and one start. The pinch runner and defensive replacement batted .167 and scored nine runs, with one RBI and two stolen bases.

Still, the Angels drafted him in the 23rd round in June of 2016, and he signed later in the month, fully intending to keep his football options open.

A helmet-to-helmet hit from Texas safety DeShon Elliott in ND’s 2016 season opener that rendered Hunter unconscious and left him with a lingering concussion shifted his thinking.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t like (football) anymore,” he said, “but I still have memory loss from that moment. Like right before the play I don’t remember much besides watching it on video.

“It was definitely a scary moment for me. It was definitely a life-changing moment.

“I thought I wanted to continue football. I thought if I had a pretty good senior year, I’d try to do the whole deal with that, the whole draft process. But after that injury and missing (three) games at the end of the season, that kind of changed my mind. I just wanted to remain healthy when I got older.”

Hunter, who turns 23 next month, still has aches and pains left over from football. He also has a warm spot in his heart from the sport.

His plan Tuesday morning was to go visit Irish head football coach Brian Kelly and some of his former Irish football teammates. He hopes to run into Cole Kmet, ND’s latest football/baseball two-timer.

And he’s counting on former Irish QB DeShone Kizer, now with the Green Bay Packers, to come watch him in person when the Bees visit the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers later this summer.

“I pay attention to football, especially Notre Dame football,” Hunter said. “I mean, I was getting draft updates during the first round during one of my games.

“And I do wonder what life would have been like had I come back for a fifth year for football and continued to play. But right now I’m trying to keep looking forward and have my eyes on the goal that’s in front of me right now.” Twitter: @EHansenNDI Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Torii Hunter Jr. takes a swing in batting practice before the Burlington Bees vs. South Bend Cubs game Monday at Four Winds Field.

WHO: South Bend Cubs (Chicago Cubs) vs. Burlington Bees (Los Angeles Angels)

WHERE: Four Winds Field (5,000)

WHEN: Tuesday, 7:05

RADIO: WSBT 960 AM, 96.1 FM

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