Los Angeles Angels OF Torii Hunter continues to inspire hope in hometown of Pine Bluff, Arkansas
by Wayne Coffey, NY Daily News
Raymond (R.J.) McGregor is a soft-spoken 16-year-old with a wisp of a goatee, a penchant for mumbling and enough pain in his past to take him from here to the Ozarks and back. For the last two years, he has played centerfield and batted cleanup for a state championship baseball team, a 5-9, 160-pound kid with speed and power and outsized ambition, along with a singular rooting interest in the American League Championship Series.
When the Angels and Yankees got things going in a billion-dollar Stadium Friday night, McGregor watched on a fading, 19-inch TV in his mother’s bedroom in a rundown brick rental home, in the most dangerous metropolitan area in the country, according to one recent study.
R.J. McGregor will mostly be tracking one player in the ALCS, No. 48 of the Angels, another centerfielder from Pine Bluff with a horrific back story. Long before he ever scaled any big-league wall or won any of his eight Gold Gloves or earned a penny of his $90 million contract, Torii Hunter had to escape much more perilous obstacles here in his hometown, a gritty city of 52,000 on the Arkansas River that teems with pawn shops, used-car lots and vacant downtown storefronts; where almost a third of the residents live in poverty and 78% of students in the Pine Bluff School District are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
“Torii Hunter inspires me,” McGregor says. “He shows you that it doesn’t matter where you are from or what problems your family may have. You can make it. You can get out.” McGregor pauses.
“When I watch him play, I feel like I’m watching myself,” he says.
With 11 full years in the big leagues behind him, the 34-year-old Hunter is renowned for his electrifying defensive play and his ebullient personality, but back home in Pine Bluff, and elsewhere, he’s known much more for philanthropy that doesn’t stop, under an initiative called The Torii Hunter Project.
Hunter and his wife, Katrina, who was also born and raised here, have officially donated more than $1 million to their various causes, though close friends are sure the total is much more than that, because of all Hunter does without fanfare. It is nothing new, says Shirley Hunter, Torii’s mother, a teacher for 28 years, her current station being second grade, Room 205 of Thirty-Fourth Avenue Elementary School.
Her son has built her a new home, and of course she could retire. But why would she?
“This is who I am. This is what I do. This is what I love,” she says, before beginning a lesson on plurals, and telling a story about the time she gave Torii, the second oldest of her four boys, a few hundred dollars for Christmas. He was about 15.
Before he could ever spend it, he gave a big chunk of the money to a man on a streetcorner with a sign asking for help.
“I think he needs it more than I do,” Hunter told his mother.
Hunter is intimately involved with an acclaimed character-development program called Heart Of A Champion, an in-school curriculum that is used in 23 states. He is underwriting college scholarships for a hundred students over five years through a program called Hunter’s 100, and built a youth baseball field in California in an effort to encourage inner-city kids to play the game. He’s also put money into a food-distribution network here, and, according to Skip Perkins Jr., the athletic director at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, is by far the biggest contributor to the $5 million Torii Hunter Baseball, Softball and Little League Complex on a 15.5-acre parcel that is being built adjacent to the campus.
“You can’t meet a better person than Torii Hunter. He’s one in a billion,” Perkins says.
Frank Anthony, superintendent of schools in Pine Bluff, raves about the impact Heart of A Champion has made, reaching some 650 students in two middle schools. Anthony appreciates Hunter’s humble bearing as much as his financial support.
“With the wealth he’s acquired, he could come in here as Mr. Important, but that’s not how he is,” Anthony says. “He’s just a common guy with a big heart and a lot of talent.”
For young people such as R.J. McGregor, Hunter’s most meaningful gift has been his candor in speaking publicly about living in poverty with a crack-addicted father; about dabbling in gangs and carrying a gun, and seeing friends and loved ones die or go to jail, done in by the sinister sirens of the Pine Bluff streets; about how important it is to be a nurturing presence for his own three sons.
Larry Reynolds has been Hunter’s agent for 17 years.
“A lot of people want to hide this stuff. Torii takes it and flips it around and turns it into a positive,” Reynolds says. “Kids look at superstars and think they grew up with a silver spoon, when it’s really quite the opposite. Torii’s message is, ‘If I can do it, you do it.'”
He is very transparent. He takes it as a challenge to kids – and doesn’t allow them to use (their background) as an excuse.”
R.J. McGregor is a sophomore at Watson Chapel High School. He’d much rather talk about the sprawling, somersaulting catch he made in an Arkansas Cal Ripken League tournament game last summer, but doesn’t pretend that his family life has ever been serene. His mother, Pamela McGregor, was raped when she was 13; the child born to her, R.J.’s half-brother, Tyrone, just finished a five-year prison term for selling drugs. In the last few months, R.J. has had two cousins die in the streets, one shot and the other knifed in the neck.
“I lost one son to the streets. I didn’t want to lose another,” Pamela McGregor says.