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Angels' Torii Hunter moves to RF in end of an era

When he first saw Tuesday night's lineup for the visiting Los Angeles Angels posted in the home clubhouse some three hours before game time, Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones thought there must have been a mistake, a typo. In the visiting clubhouse, the Angels beat writers did a double-take, then began the uncomfortable creep towards Torii Hunter's locker -- where they found Hunter sitting there, waiting for them.

After nearly 11 years of playing exclusively in center field, and establishing himself as arguably the best defensive center fielder of his era (among players whose prime years occurred in the 2000s, Andruw Jones is the only other player with a legitimate claim), Hunter would be starting in right field that night. It took all of a few seconds for Angels Manager Mike Scioscia to write the letters "RF" next to Hunter's name on the lineup card, but the move had been weeks in the making, and it felt like the end of an era.

"Center field is my home," Hunter, 35, said -- not defiantly, but sadly. "That's what I love."

The decision to move, officially, was Hunter's -- after, he said, several days of praying about it. But any time someone of his stature is moved from a premium position (think Cal Ripken as the Orioles' shortstop), there is an uneasy understanding that momentum was already building in that direction. It was a matter of when it would happen, and how it would be executed, and Hunter's grace and loyalty, in a sense, let the Angels off the hook.

In Baltimore, they still remember Manny Alexander's name as the player who forced Ripken's move to third base. And for the Angels, it was a 23-year-old rookie named Peter Bourjos who bounced Hunter. Here's hoping he turns out better than Alexander did.

"It's pretty weird," Bourjos told reporters. "I watched him growing up. He was always a guy [whom] I tried to play like."

There were solid, practical reasons for making the move. With Juan Rivera in left and Bobby Abreu in right -- both of whom have the range of a streetlight -- the Angels needed someone with exceptional speed to fill in the gaps. Hunter, a nine-time Gold Glove winner, could do the job capably, but his legs could only take so much, and the increased demands on him in the field were costing him at the plate.

"It takes longer for me to recover, and that hurts the team," Hunter said. "Let him run. He's 23, 24 -- they don't get tired.... I could say I want to go for that 10th Gold Glove. But all that individual stuff, you let that go. All I care about is winning."

But the move also smacked of desperation, with the Angels, champions of the AL West in five of the last six seasons, having fallen eight games behind the first-place Texas Rangers. Put it this way: It wasn't Torii Hunter who was was hurting the Angels.

Hunter's defensive credentials have taken a hit during the statistical revolution in baseball, as his advanced defensive stats (UZR, plus/minus and the like) have never matched his sterling reputation and his hardware haul, both of which were products of visual evaluation. His spectacular catch to rob Barry Bonds of a home run in the 2002 All-Star Game is one of the most memorable defensive plays of the decade, and he probably had a half-dozen or more that were even better.

The Angels may be a little better with Peter Bourjos in center field and Hunter in right. But baseball is a little worse off.

By Dave Sheinin  |  August 4, 2010; 1:52 PM ET
Categories:  Angels  
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Great stuff, Dave.

Posted by: JohninMpls | August 4, 2010 2:18 PM | Report abuse

I can accept in theory that Torii Hunter had slipped from his prime defensively, but him and Jim Edmonds were the most fun to watch.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | August 4, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

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