PORT CHARLOTTE — Pitcher Tommy Hunter joined the Rays on Friday, signing a minor-league deal. Hunter is a veteran, versatile right-hander who threw for two contenders last season — Cleveland and Baltimore. He was once a closer for the Orioles. He has pitched in three postseasons, including three starts for Texas in 2010, one in the World Series. The 30-year-old has a chance to make the Rays.
Best of all, Tommy Hunter recorded a save last All-Star break.
And he didn't pitch in the All-Star Game.
In July, during the break, Tommy Hunter saved Henry Thomas Hunter, his then 10-month-old son, from serious injury and maybe even more than that during a freak home accident.
But dad broke his back. Nondisplaced fracture.
"I was on the top step, carrying my kid down," Hunter said. "I had just changed his diaper. We were going down to play some basketball. I was holding him. I slipped off the top step and we went down 17 stairs. I saved that little … "
Everyone at his new locker laughed. Tommy Hunter laughed. He likes to laugh.
Hunter took us back to the stairs. He was wearing socks and his feet went out from under him.
"It was Home Alone (stuff)," he said.
Hunter's socks left a black streak on the wall. He also knocked out some iron rungs on the bannister.
But he held on to his boy, moving him from his right hip to his chest, cradling his head, shielding him.
"I'm not the lightest guy in the world," said the 6-foot-3 Hunter. "This little kid didn't deserve to have a snapped leg. That's all I thought about. I got him out of the way, but when I did, I opened up my whole right side and snapped my back in half."
A dazed Hunter ("Dude, I went down 17 stairs.") came around. Charlie, the family's golden retriever, was hovering over him.
"I got down to the bottom of my stairs," Hunter said. "My dog, he was kind of waking me up a little bit."
Henry was sitting on his father's chest, screaming, but okay.
"I tried to pick him up, but I couldn't," Tommy Hunter said.
Hunter dragged himself to the living room and called his wife, Ellen.
Henry was fine. However, his dad's back injury was initially misdiagnosed as merely a severe bruise. Even Hunter's wife, an occupational therapist, didn't pick up on it when her husband said he ached.
"She literally came home and threw me a bag of frozen peas," Hunter said.
You always hear about freak baseball injuries. Guys sidelined by dog bites and spider bites. The guy who scorched his face in a tanning bed. The time Wade Boggs, Tampa's own, strained his back pulling on cowboy boots. The Royals just lost pitcher Brian Flynn for at least eight weeks because Flynn fell through the roof of the barn on his property. Broken rib, three nondisplaced fracture in his vertebrae.
But none of those guys had their only child in their arms.
A week or so after the accident, with Hunter still unable to throw, Indians manager Terry Francona suggested an MRI exam, which revealed the fracture. Hunter wore a hulking back brace for three weeks.
He was released by Cleveland in late August but was quickly signed by and reunited with the Orioles, once his employer for five seasons. Hunter made it into 12 games before the end of the season.
Then the Rays came calling. Again. Tampa Bay had pursued Hunter before last season.
"I've known Tommy for a long time," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "We were teammates in Round Rock in 2011. At the time, he was kind of battling as a starter, up-down from Texas to Triple A."
"Kevin was the first guy to catch me when I went from starter to reliever," Hunter said.
"He brings a ton of energy to the clubhouse, good guy, and he's a power pitcher," Cash said. "He has pitched a lot of big innings in the American League East. That's always a nice guy to have that experiences."
There are all kinds of experiences. Like the one last July.
Tommy Hunter smiled.
"Yeah, man, got lucky, man. I can literally say it: I broke my back for that little kid."
Long live Henry Thomas Hunter.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.