LA Angels News

A Look into the MiLB life with Torii Hunter Jr

By Ryan Falla
WICHITA, KS - AUGUST 06: Pitcher Tim Hudson #15 of the Kansas Stars delivers a pitch against the Colorado Xpress in the second inning during the NBC World Series on August 6, 2016 at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium in Wichita, Kansas. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)
WICHITA, KS - AUGUST 06: Pitcher Tim Hudson #15 of the Kansas Stars delivers a pitch against the Colorado Xpress in the second inning during the NBC World Series on August 6, 2016 at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium in Wichita, Kansas. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images) /
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Halo Hangout spent much of this past summer following the LA Angels MiLB organization, the Inland Empire 66ers, during the 2018 season. One of the many lessons we learned regarding the routine of the Minor League baseball player was the gravity of the many difficulties and hardships that come with the life of the hopeful future Major League baseball player.

Late in the season the LA Angels promoted Torii Hunter Jr to the Class A Advanced 66ers, and upon meeting him we took the time to learn about the minute difficulties and challenges faced daily by the innumerable Minor Leaguers battling to make a dream come true.

There may not be a life in any of the major American sports that is more difficult, unforgiving, and brutal than the life of the Minor League Baseball player. Baseball is often seen as the sport of luxury; It’s not often seen as a high-octane sport like many others yet the truth couldn’t be any farther. No other American sport requires the athlete to grind away in obscurity throughout the lower rungs of a bottom heavy-hierarchy only to achieve the opportunity to grind harder in hopes that your talent will one day grace the professional playing field.

That sounds a lot like the life of the athlete moving up the college or high school system in the hopes of one day being drafted for their excellence. With sports like football or basketball you will typically see the athletes that have proved themselves to be the cream of the system they played in (Division I-III College, High School, Junior College, Independent Leagues etc.) shoot straight to the big stage to prove their worth.

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Minor League Baseball is just another multi-year run through another system built to prove ones worth.

It’s no wonder baseball produces the level of talent it does year in and year out.

Torii Hunter Jr, an LA Angels prospect and current outfielder for the MiLB Inland Empire 66ers, is not just an example of the talent crafted by the rigors of professional baseball, but an example of the mental fortitude required to survive the process. Hunter Jr found himself drafted by the Angels organization in 2016 and he currently sits with the Inland Empire 66ers, a part of the Class A Advanced level of the MiLB. At Class A Advanced, referred to in short-hand as ‘High A’, you’ll find a variety of talent among the class of athletes involved. From superstars beginning their career to blue-collar type players who have spent a year or two working in the lower levels (Low-A and Rookie Ball among other divisions). Within that mix is potential future star Torii Hunter Jr.

The standard type of athlete you find here is the college player who was just drafted or the high school athlete whose already had a year or two of Minor League experience. Coming into the MiLB, Torii Hunter Jr was tasked with climbing the lowest levels of the Minors to get to where he is now, High A, which is still considered a low-level, but in reality is about the halfway point to reaching the Major Leagues. That’s the Minor League life for you, battling your way through obscurity, maybe even for years, so you can grind away in slightly-less-obscure environments.

In baseball you won’t get drafted out of college and go straight to the big leagues, that’s actually one way to end a players career before it had a chance to begin. In fact you’re entering another hierarchy far too alike to the ones just exited, the high school and college environments. The mental strain that comes with this hierarchal atmosphere is unfathomable and the fact that these athletes rise every day looking to meet this challenge speaks loudly of the mental strength required to become a professional baseball player.

Torii Hunter Jr

H.H: What was the most difficult aspect of the Minors for you to first adjust to?

Hunter Jr: I think it was just the feeling of not being where everybody else was, it was right when I first got to Spring Training. Everything was just really frustrating, I wasn’t giving myself the benefit of the doubt that I hadn’t really played much. Of course I’m a competitor and I want to be where everybody else was. It was definitely frustrating not being where everybody else was developmentally.

H.H: What are the day-to-day challenges you face traveling as a ballplayer?

Hunter Jr: The wear and tear, being on the bus for long periods of time, that kind of wears on you over the long course of the season. I think that’s probably the biggest thing, sitting on that bus for a long time, doubled up or whatever it may be. Being on that bus for a long time is definitely tough.

H.H: Can you describe the environment of extended Spring Training?

Hunter Jr: It depends on who you surround yourself with. There can be a lot of negativity behind it, but there’s also a lot of good things going on, a lot of people trying to get better and trying to make it out. It just depends on who you surround yourself with. If you surround yourself with the right people it can be a great environment to develop and try to hone in on different skills that you need to get better at.

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That’s really the first test, mentally tackling the stresses and pains of going from being a top college/high school athlete to a low-level nobody and rebuilding your value all over again. Some athletes will find themselves in denial of their new reality, shy away from the gargantuan task presented, or at worst let self-doubt and anxiety infect and cripple their confidence.

In baseball you can have all the talent in the world and still never sniff a big league clubhouse. Why is that? Even one of historically greatest baseball talents, Mike Trout, had to tough out two years and some change in the Minors before getting the call to the Bigs. Two years is considered a quick go-around in the Minors, yet there are thousands of MiLB athletes whose budding careers ended within that two year span. Far too often you’ll find players who considered themselves future Major League talent before seeing this dreamy, prospective status dwindle inside of one year.

If you’re lucky as a prospect, the basic levels of the Minors are all you’ll have to run through. If not, if you’re a prospect struggling to get with the landscape or simply someone who isn’t a mental powerhouse, you’ll find yourself suffering through Extended Spring Training. What is Extended Spring Training exactly?

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For many Minor Leaguers it’s life-or-death.

Somewhat.

More often than not it’s a players last shot to really get it together and stick around professional baseball. When all the Spring Training lights have gone out; when all the players, fans, and coaches have advanced towards regular season baseball there remains the athletes designated for extended while the rest of the baseball world moves forward.

As Torii Hunter Jr would describe it, Extended Spring Training was a spot for him to bridge the gap between his lack of hitting reps in college and the level of play the other incoming draftees and potential Big Leaguers have adjusted to. Even though that sounds like a standard mindset, one seeking continual improvement, it’s not a mindset you’ll find so easily in extended. Like all of baseball it’s about the mindset you approach the situation with, and in extended you’ll find the rawest form of that philosophy.

It’s up to you whether you make or break yourself, with that being said it’s no surprise Torii Hunter Jr made his way through extended. Despite his gnawing self-doubts and frustrations with not competing on the same level as everyone else the biggest factor in seeing him continue his journey through the Angels system

At that point he still really hadn’t touched on the Minors yet.

So what exactly does the Minor League life consist of for the athlete toughing through the grind? Too many bus trips towards second-rate motels, budget meals fit for a high-schooler, occasional (sometimes often) crippling self-doubt, but most importantly the desire to dream. The Minor League life is too much like Groundhogs Day. Day in and day out you’re essentially living the same experience while attempting to make the most subtle changes here and there to improve the outlook of the next day. Baseball life is less about learning to best your opponents and more about learning how to better yourself, and in that same vein learning how to avoid mentally besting yourself.

I know this sounds like a generalized notion that could apply to any sport, and at the base level it does, yet there is one common factor that separates baseball from the rest of the pack. In basketball or football, even soccer, you can beat the sport into submission on the power of your physical strength and natural talent. You can be big enough and strong enough to bend the game to your will and in basketball it’s most noticeable that talent overrides all other factors. Yet with baseball you can have the physical tools of a Baseball God and a swing the size of Paul Bunynan, but all it takes is one mental roadblock in a less-than-stellar mentality to put ones career on a path that will lead you out of the game.

This is why slumps are so common and accepted in baseball, slumps are a natural part of the game because it highlights the biggest factors for success in the game of baseball. The game of baseball always dictates the level of success you can have and it’s up to you to adjust yourself to the needs of the game. Almost like a living, breathing entity, the relationship between baseball and the athlete is ever-fluctuating, enlightening, deceitful, and demanding; but most of all it’s rewarding. Only if you put in the effort worthy of reward

Torii Hunter Jr was already well-versed in some of the hardships of the baseball life. As a child with an All-Star baseball athlete for a father Hunter Jr often found his father, Torii Hunter Sr, away from home during the young Hunter Jrs formulating years. There’s no mistake that Hunter Sr made every effort to be there for his son, but as it is with the sporting life you’ll often find your hands tied in terms of living the family life. This is one of the biggest difficulties of the game; not including spring training or playoffs the average Major Leaguer is liable to miss up to 162 days of their child’s growth, their partners companionship, and the company of their closest hometown friends.

That’s just the nature of the game, and Hunter Jr is now experiencing those difficulties on the other end of the situation. As a 23 year old Minor Leaguer it already seemed like his life couldn’t be any harder, then comes along a child, the birth of his first-born son. The most immediate, pressing question in that situation is “How are you supposed to raise a family on the miniscule pay offered by the MiLB”? Only a few hundred dollars a month is what you’ll find yourself living on if you choose this incredible trying career path, and that pay isn’t fit a single adult male let alone the bread of an entire family. For Hunter Jr that presented a big problem as he had both a wife and son he was tasked with looking after, and to make that work as a MiLB’er requires some extra fortitude.

Torii Hunter Jr

H.H: How is the relationship with your father now that you’re a professional baseball player?

Hunter Jr: It’s pretty much the same as it’s always been, he’s always a resource there for me. If I need any help, if he sees anything he’ll let me know. He’ll be sure to call me after the game or the following day and let me know what’s going on. It’s pretty much the same as it’s always been, he’s always been an open book and ready to answer any questions I have.

H.H: What kind of challenges does being a pro ball player bring to your own fatherhood?

Hunter Jr: It’s definitely tough not being able to see your kid and your wife all day. But man was called to work so I gotta go to work and try to achieve a dream that I’ve had since I was a kid, being a Major League Baseball Player. My wife supports it, so I try to go out there every-day and give it my all and try to get to where I want to be. I just want to be a great example for my son. It’s definitely tough not seeing them, but you try to enjoy those moments in the mornings and when you get home as much as you can. I’m definitely looking forward to hanging out with them more in the offseason.

H.H: What is the living situation like for a Minor Leaguer during the season?

Hunter Jr: My wife and son were with me in Burlington; it was me, my wife, my son, David Mackinnon when he was in Burlington and his wife and then Harrison Wenson, a catcher that was also on the team. I was living in a three bedroom apartment making it work. I definitely enjoyed it, it was my first time being in that close quarters with that many people. We made it work, we enjoyed it. It was tough to get used to at first, we made it work. Saved us a lot of money [laughs]

H.H: Aside from baseball related activities, how do you spend your downtime during the season?

Hunter Jr: Either hanging out with my wife and my kid or watching some tv, playing video games. That’s pretty much, I’m a pretty laid-back guy. I play everything; FIFA, I’m trying to get into Fortnite but I’m not really that good yet, but I’m trying to get into it. NBA 2K, pretty much everything man. I’m pretty well-rounded [laughs]

162 MiLB Games Played: .293 Batting Average

In his time with the Low-A Burlington Bees Torii Hunter Jr lived the Brady Bunch life. Jam packed in a three bedroom apartment with two families, his own alongside fellow teammate David Mackinnon (plus one catcher named Harrison Wenson), Hunter Jr mastered the absolute basics of both baseball life and the personal life of the athlete. Making it work not only for yourself, but your teammates.

And to think this is only the introduction into the baseball life.

What’s truly difficult about the MiLB life is the uncertainty, the daily anxieties which breed amongst themselves to create feelings of dread. Simple, natural anxieties such as the uncertainity of not knowing whether you’ll truly crack the Big Leagues or not. It’s a huge deal, not knowing whether you’ll one day have to either abandon your career path or be forced out of it. The years of miniscule, unlivable wages leading to nothing but unfulfilled hopes and dreams. The softly creeping terrors of realizing your career may be even more uncertain than you once felt coming out of the draft.

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To be able to battle away those anxieties and frustrations is only a fraction of the mental work required in the upkeep of ones future Major League status. Of course there are the prospects with tunnel-vision level confidence and unbreakable desire, but then again those tend to be the standout prospects who will break through the Majors.

Torii Hunter Jr has been living that life for the last two years; the frustrations of extended Spring Training, the difficulties of raising your first-born on a Minor League salary, the excitement of inching closer and closer to your dreams every day, and the love that is always there, the love that is baseball. It’s up to you as an athlete whether you want to love the game back, even though all the difficulties and its inherent unforgiving nature. If you can choose to love the game back there is no end to what you can accomplish, and that’s really the greatest key to success.  If you can love the game and love what you’re doing in relation there’s no doubt you’ll be rewarded with the grandest gesture of appreciation from baseball.

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A ticket to Big Leagues. Funny enough, once you earn that ticket to ride you’ll soon realize that’s only half the battle, and the easiest half at that. Finding success in the Majors presents more difficulty than simply finding the Majors, but with the proper mindset there’s no end to the success available to be had.

On that note, it will only be a matter of time until we see the strong, talented Torii Hunter Jr find himself running the same fields as his father before him.

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