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Torii Hunter Jr. Journeys From The Gridiron To Rocket City

February 15, 2022

After a year off and a lot of time to reflect and practice, Torii Hunter Jr. was finally ready to get back in the game. To start the season, the outfielder was assigned to the Rocket City Trash Pandas and was gearing up to start in his Double-A debut on

After a year off and a lot of time to reflect and practice, Torii Hunter Jr. was finally ready to get back in the game. To start the season, the outfielder was assigned to the Rocket City Trash Pandas and was gearing up to start in his Double-A debut on May 5 in Chattanooga.

He took batting practice at AT&T Field, did his pregame stretches, and was playing catch on the field just minutes before the Trash Pandas would battle the Lookouts in the first game in franchise history. As he finished playing catch, Trash Pandas manager Jay Bell came up to Hunter with exciting news, but he didn’t believe it at first.

“I was about to start the game, then Jay came up to me and told me I was going to Triple-A,” Hunter Jr. recalled. “I thought he was playing with me because the game was just about to start. Then he told me again and I still didn’t believe it.”

Once he realized what he was hearing was real, Hunter was pulled from the Opening Day lineup and watched the first Trash Pandas game from the bench. The next day, he was off to Salt Lake for his Triple-A debut.

Once arriving in Salt Lake, Hunter played in five straight games for the Bees, including a 2-for-5 performance with a home run, two RBI, and three runs scored on May 10 vs. Reno. However, he was assigned back to the Trash Pandas two days later.

The off-the-field logistics of moving across the country three times in a span of two weeks proved to be just as challenging as the on-field aspects.

“I had just gotten my car and all my stuff to Alabama, then I got called up to Salt Lake on the day of the first game,” he said. “I was panicking because I had just found my place to stay in Alabama. Then they sent me to Salt Lake and I found a place to stay there. Then they sent me back here. Luckily the person we were leasing from let me come back. It was chaos, but that’s part of it.”

Torii Hunter Jr. was one of Rocket City's most popular players in 2021. Cristina Byrne/Rocket City Trash Pandas

The logistics of moving back and forth a number of times in a short period may seem daunting. But how about playing two Division I sports at the same time? That’s what Hunter did at Notre Dame from 2013-16, starring as a wide receiver on the football team with occasional baseball games in the spring.

“My days were full. Even while playing baseball, I was still mainly playing football in the spring,” he said. “I was getting up at 5 a.m. to go to spring football practice, then go to class, then baseball in the afternoon. But I was able to get my work in and stay laser focused.”

Hunter’s college career got off to a tough start, as an injury in high school kept him off the baseball field for his senior year in high school and for his freshman football season at Notre Dame.

When Hunter finally debuted for Notre Dame on September 27, 2014, he caught a touchdown to help the Fighting Irish defeat Syracuse. It was a moment that made all the struggles worth the wait.

“When I scored my first touchdown, it made all the hard work and all the days of doubting myself so much better when it finally happened,” he said. “In football there’s so much emotional energy built up so when you score, it’s the ultimate euphoria.”

The touchdown was the first of six over Hunter’s three years on the gridiron for Notre Dame. During the 2015 and 2016 seasons, he became a starter and ranked among the team lead in catches and yards both seasons.

However, a concussion suffered during a football game his senior season proved to be a big factor that drew Hunter back to baseball. Despite playing only 23 baseball games for Notre Dame, the Angels drafted him in the 23rd round in 2016, and he signed the contract to play professionally.

His first professional baseball season in 2017 was the first time he’d played a prolonged stretch of baseball since high school. With that came the obvious growing pains for the now-former football player.

“Facing professional pitchers was a big welcome to professional baseball. I knew I had work to do. I struggled the first three months trying to get used to playing every day,” he said. “I’d also just finished my football season so I felt behind. I looked like a football player playing baseball.”

With the difficulties of being a rookie starting his professional career, Hunter had the perfect person to turn to for how to handle those situations; his father, nine-time Gold Glove Award winner and five-time American League All-Star Torii Hunter Sr.

“He would try to make things simple for me,” Hunter Jr. said of his dad. “I was probably overcomplicating the game. If you’re on time, you can hit anything, no matter what your swing is like. Be early, see the ball, and hit the ball. Just as simple as that. Don’t try to do too much with it. Know yourself, know what you can do right now, and do that to the best of your ability. I’ve stuck with that and I started to figure it out.”

That advice proved to be handy throughout the younger Hunter’s career, especially once he returned to the Trash Pandas in mid-May 2021. Slotted into manager Jay Bell’s lineup nearly every day, Hunter found quick success with a .303 average in June before dropping to .193 in July and .176 in August.

Despite the difficulty at the plate, he became a fan favorite for his strong play in the outfield and his infections relaxed personality in the dugout, often dancing along to music during games or before the game in the dugout.

“I feel like it’s important to me to not be so tightly wound. That would stress everyone else out,” he said. “You should be loose out there, play loose, and that’s how I approach it. It’s a long season, so you’ve got to have fun with it and enjoy the people who you are around.”

“He is a guy that hustles, does things the right way, and is a phenomenal human being,” Bell said of Hunter in September. “In my opinion, he is one of the hearts and souls of the team.”

Playing as long of a season as any in his career, Hunter ended 2021 on a high note for the Trash Pandas, being named the team’s Player of the Month for September after a .333 average in 12 games. It was just the momentum he needed heading into the offseason.

“That last month he really turned it on. I’m really happy to see that he is finishing the season with a flourish,” Bell added. “He’s got a lot to learn, a lot of room to grow. I like what he’s done for us. I’m interested to see what he becomes. It’s been a long season, and for him to continue to play as hard as he does day in and day out is pretty special.”

Overall, Hunter is proud of his 2021 season and will look to build off the year he had with the Trash Pandas as he continues toward his goal of reaching the big leagues.

“I had a lot of fun playing baseball here last year,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing I’d take away from being out here. I love the team. I love the atmosphere, and I love the fans.”