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FOR HUNTER, TITLE SHOT WAS ONLY FACTOR

Times wires

BOSTON - The next time a player says he has not even thought about his pending free agency, understand that he is lying. Or, at least, that he is not like the Tigers' Torii Hunter, who enjoyed last season in Anaheim, Calif., but knew he might not play there forever.

"You've always got to have a fallback plan, and when I was with the Angels, that whole season I was just watching different teams, trying to put the pieces together," Hunter said a day before Detroit opened the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox.

"Do these guys need a rightfielder? Do they need a 2-hole guy or a 5-hole guy? And I'd look at the pitching staff. If I didn't like facing those guys and I went 0-for-14, that's the team I wanted to play for - and I did that a lot with the Tigers last year."

By the time the season ended, with the Angels missing the playoffs and Hunter missing the World Series for the 16th season, he had decided on Detroit. The Tigers had just been swept in the World Series by the Giants, and they needed outfield help.

With a chance to negotiate with every team, Hunter and his agent, Larry Reynolds, sought only one.

"About eight other clubs wanted him, but we didn't want to put those clubs on hold," Reynolds said. "We were pretty straightforward. We said we were going to start with the first team on his wish list, and we weren't going to get into a bidding war. We signed before Thanksgiving."

With a two-year deal for $26 million, Hunter had his next best chance to reach the World Series after six fruitless postseason trips with the Twins and the Angels. The Tigers had a nine-time Gold Glove winner and one of the most popular players in the game.

"He's charismatic, he's funny, he's very approachable and he goes about things the right way," starter Justin Verlander said of Hunter. "What more can you ask for? He's the consummate teammate and friend."

Jim Leyland called Hunter one of the toughest players he had ever managed, but he mainly praised Hunter for his performance. At 38, Hunter hit .304 with 17 homers and 84 RBIs, helping the Tigers reach the ALCS for the third season in a row.

When they clinched an ALCS berth with a victory at Oakland on Thursday, Hunter gathered the team around the infield for a choreographed celebration called the Turn-Up. They raised their hands together, hollered some dirty words together, and laughed together.

"We were struggling in September, and Torii came up with it," utility man Don Kelly said. "We'd do it before games in the clubhouse, just to get everybody pumped up, loosened up before the game. Torii leads it. Those are the little things that he does to bring everybody together."

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