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Hunter unites with longtime friend, rival Leyland

By Jason Beck / MLB.com

Thursday, February 14, 2013 6:11 PM ET

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Torii Hunter won over Jim Leyland even when his Twins were winning against him. Not even Leyland, noted cynic of clubhouse chemistry, could ignore Hunter's outgoing personality.

It started years ago with a simple line from Hunter taking a dig at Leyland's spikes.

"Knowing that he wore spikes as a manager," Hunter said, "I always used to say, 'Hey, Jimmy Leyland, what's going on, man? You feel like you're going to play today? You never know, you might need a pinch-hitter!'

"The first conversation I ever had with him, he had the spikes on, and that's what he told me, that he might have to pinch-hit. I thought he was funny, and we kind of broke the ice."

For years, Leyland wore spikes as a manager. It was part of his image as an old-school, no-nonsense leader, and he kept it up his first few years as Tigers manager until back problems forced him to hang them up. He wears turf shoes now.

"He always used to tease me about wearing spikes," Leyland recalled. "He got a big kick out of that. I wore spikes for a long, long time. I still would if not for my back. That's how we originally got talking.

"We laughed about it and became kind of friends, as much as you can with the other team."

Don't let the old-school image fool you. Leyland has been known to talk with opposing players he respects. He chatted with Cleveland's All-Star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera on the field one morning before a game last year. He has a great amount of respect for Derek Jeter.

Everything changes when the game begins, but Leyland enjoys talking. He enjoyed talking with Hunter most of all, whether he broke his heart the game before or if he went hitless.

"I always had a lot of respect for him as an opposing player," Leyland said. "I knew he was going to compete hard against you."

Hunter's reputation among his peers, of course, is stellar. Even as he was haunting the Tigers in games, he was friends with many of them. Craig Monroe was one of several outfielders who sought advice from him, and began working out with him in Dallas, where they both live.

The crack about Leyland's spikes and the conversation it sparked began a relationship that carried on long after the height of the Tigers-Twins rivalry.

Hunter signed with the Angels after the 2007 season, meaning he'd face the Tigers two or three series a season instead of six. They found time to talk.

"We talked a lot over the years," Leyland said. "I probably talked to him as much as I had with any opposing player I ever managed against. I don't know, we just hit it off."

Said Hunter: "We'd come in and we'd play those guys, and we'd always meet behind the batting cages during batting practice, and we'd just talk. We had great conversations."

The funny thing about them is that they didn't have much to do with the game.

"We didn't talk about baseball," Hunter said. "We didn't talk about what I was doing right or wrong, because he didn't want me to hurt him or whatever that day. We always talked about life, what was going on, how happy are you. It was a great conversation, I can tell you that."

They had more in common than one would think. Both were raising sons who were becoming standout student-athletes. Patrick Leyland graduated from high school into the Tigers system in 2010. Torii Hunter Jr. will graduate this spring.

The younger Hunter has signed a letter of intent to play football at Notre Dame. Leyland is a huge Notre Dame fan, and usually travels to South Bend for a game each season. Leyland also has a nephew who plays football at Michigan.

Now, obviously, they'll both be wearing the Old English D.

"Little did I know that someday he'd be on the same team as I am," Leyland said. "I didn't really think that, but I'm glad it happened."

They'll be talking a lot about baseball now, obviously, and they'll be talking every day. Hunter reported to Tigers camp on a rainy Thursday morning and immediately hit the batting cages for work with hitting coach Lloyd McClendon.

Hunter said he reported at camp around 212 pounds, building off the benefits he saw when he came to camp lighter last year. He lost 18 by his estimation that offseason, and he felt like he regained some quickness and agility that he had when he was younger.

After 14 full seasons in the big leagues, he has developed a slow, steady approach to Spring Training that might be useful for younger players in camp. At age 37, he's done worrying about spring numbers. What he wants is the approach and the process.

"For me, I don't come in for the results of hitting .300 because you can have a bad swing and get a hit," Hunter said. "My job as a veteran player is to come in and get my timing down, get my foot down, track the ball, different things like that. If I'm hitting the ball hard, it still could be an out. I just want to hit the ball hard, get my foot down, get my timing down, and by the last two weeks or 10 days of Spring Training, turn it up a notch and try to fight going into the season ready to go."

His approach is a process. His chemistry is immediate. Like Prince Fielder a year ago, Hunter walked into the Tigers clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium and fit like he had been a Tiger for years.

Victor Martinez welcomed him like a longtime teammate, not a longtime division rival. Fielder joked that he'll be glad to see Hunter steal other people's hits instead of his.

His enthusiasm was infectious, as even Leyland acknowledged.

"He loves the game. He loves to play," Leyland said. "We think he's really going to be good for us. He's another guy that's got one of those good faces. And he plays it. He plays it hard. He comes to beat the other team."

The track record of his teams shows that Hunter's pretty good at beating the other team. That doesn't stop him from talking with them. It couldn't stop him from winning over Leyland long before he thought about playing for him.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.