|Wednesday, June 19
Hunter, Shabazz remain friends forever
By Alan Schwarz
Special to ESPN.com
Torii Hunter was a mess. Just two years ago he was sitting in his Pacific Coast League hotel room, back in Triple-A, demoted like a stiff. Stop pulling the ball so much? Hit the other way? The young Twins outfielder was hitting the other way, all right -- hitting all the stops he thought he'd left for the glamour of the big leagues, only to find himself going backwards. Hunter considered going all the way back -- back to Arkansas, back to Pine Bluff, away from baseball forever.
Then he called Basil.
"You don't want to work for a living," Basil said. "Trust me."
That's really all it took. Even at his lowest, Hunter listened to his old high school friend Basil Shabazz and was reminded he could indeed go lower, and fast. The two talked about that, about losing priorities and perspective and opportunity, and have almost every day since -- even this season, when Hunter has blossomed into one of the best and most exciting players in the American League.
Despite his tantalizing name, Basil (pronounced bah-ZEEL) Shabazz is not some mystical creature, some Great Gazoo appearing over Hunter's shoulder when challenge strikes. Shabazz is one of the greatest pure athletes Arkansas has ever produced -- a legend whose feats for Pine Bluff High still roll off the tongue of anyone who watched him. Five touchdowns in the 1990 state championship game against Texarkana. A 200-meter dash in 20.8 seconds, a state record that still stands, plus a high jump of 6-foot-9 and long jump of 24-3. All-state in basketball, a USA Today football All-American alongside Napoleon Kaufman and Derrick Brooks, and the National Sports News Services' 1991 USA High School Athlete of the Year.
Shabazz joined the baseball team his senior spring of 1991 just for the heck of it and hit .358, enticing the Cardinals to make him their third-round draft pick and give him a $150,000 bonus to give up the promise of college football. But from there it all unraveled. Pro baseball wound up rejecting Basil Shabazz like a bad organ -- finer points such as bat control and outfield angles confounded him, he missed football so much he tried out with some NFL teams, and a drug-and-weapons charge (quickly dropped) sullied his name in the St. Louis organization. By 1995 he was out of baseball. He tried to re-ignite his football potential by playing at Arkansas-Pine Bluff but there was no potential left; soon he was gone there, too, to the anonymity of Waco, Texas, where he now works the 2-to-10 shift at the Skyview Living Center counseling mentally retarded adults.
Shabazz might have his old trophies, even a few videotapes. But his most cherished link to that Pine Bluff past is the little sophomore who played alongside him on the 1991 baseball team, Torii Hunter.
"I live through him," Shabazz says.
They speak almost every day. Hunter will share the daily trials and monotony of baseball's grind, Shabazz the same of real life. It's a friendship whose length and respect bridge the growing gaps in income and fame. In fact, Hunter heartily credits Shabazz with his focus and development into the Gold Glove leader of the division-leading Twins and a likely All-Star this season.
"He's my scout and my coach," says Hunter, batting .305-16-50 through Tuesday, placing in the top 10 in the American League most major offensive categories. "It's mostly on the mental side. When I'm tired and all, sick of things, he'll pick me up. He says, 'You don't want to look back and say I didn't give it my all.' I'm sure he's someone who understands that. You're going to listen to him because of what he's been through."
Hunter can listen only over the phone. Now 30, Shabazz has never seen any of Hunter's 457 major-league games in person. Not even when the Twins play the Rangers in Arlington, just an hour's drive from Waco?
"Man," Shabazz says wearily, "I work."
That was the warning Hunter received two years ago when he called Shabazz to vent about his demotion to Triple-A, after Minnesota manager Tom Kelly had shipped him and his .207, pull-happy swing back to Salt Lake. "He thought about hanging 'em up," Shabazz recalls. Instead, Hunter got an earful of how lucky he was to be playing at all. He got an earful of how he had better keep pushing, if only for his friend who never made it.
Hunter listened. After a blistering .368-18-61, 55-game hitch in the PCL he returned to Minnesota to stay. Remembers Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, then a coach, "I saw him come back with a whole different attitude, like, 'No one's gonna stop me.' No one, himself included." Last season Hunter won his first Gold Glove, gleefully leaping over so many fences to steal so many home runs that he earned the nickname "Spidey." Now he's the MVP of the Selig-chafing Twins. "He's blowin' up," reliever LaTroy Hawkins says, "like a man smokin' at a gas station."
But Shabazz sees his friend only on ESPN highlights. It's amazing how their paths have diverged, mostly since the night in October 1994 when their careers stood side-by-side, both in serious jeopardy, in a Conway, Ark., jail cell.
The two had been visiting friends at Central Arkansas University. Late one evening while waiting for Hunter to finish a dorm-room game of dominoes, Shabazz was sleeping in his Ford Explorer when a policeman rapped on the glass and told him to open the door, whereupon he saw a handgun beneath the front seat. He also found a small amount of marijuana and rolling papers. Shabazz was arrested immediately, Hunter after he emerged from the dorm.
"Boom -- I burned my face on the engine," Hunter recalls of getting handcuffed. Shabazz and Hunter both faced misdemeanor drug charges; Shabazz also faced a felony charge of possessing a firearm on a university campus.
Months later every charge was dropped -- authorities couldn't prove any of the items were either used, were intended to be used or even belonged to Hunter or Shabazz. The Twins stood by Hunter, one of their top prospects. But the Cardinals, weary of Shabazz's .200 averages and wary of his background, released him. He got a brief shot with the Brewers, got cut again, tried college football for a few falls but realized in 1998 that with a wife and baby daughter he had little choice but to enter the real world. His once-dreamlike athletic career was over.
Hunter's was just blossoming. The Twins were grooming him as their center fielder of the future, and he earned his first starting job in 1999. He kept speaking to Shabazz on the phone several times a week, even more during and after that PCL stint in 2000. Today, whenever Hunter needs a pick-me-up he calls Shabazz -- and when he can't reach him just remembers his story. "He had way more talent than I did," Hunter says. "Way more."
Shabazz, speaking by phone from the Skyview Living Center, says he's trying to earn enough vacation time to fly to Minnesota and watch his buddy play for the first time. Meanwhile, he just catches Hunter's highlights on TV, of which there are increasingly many.
Asked if he misses sports, Shabazz says no. He has his buddy to thank for it.
"When I see him hit a home run or making one of those catches, I feel like I did it myself," Shabazz says. "I tell him, 'I live through you, man.' I don't want to miss it. That'd drive me crazy. But when Torii's playing, I can't miss it. My boy's still out there. That's good enough for me."
Alan Schwarz is the Senior Writer of Baseball America magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.