By Bryan Levine, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — Being featured on SportsCenter’s Top-10 Plays was a dream for most young athletes who grew up in the 1990s or early 2000s.
The highlight segment was must-see every night for all fans.
At the end of the week, ESPN would also collect the best bloopers for the Not-Top-10 Plays.
That was the list athletes wanted to avoid at all costs, but Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Tommy Hunter wasted no time finding his way into the weekly lowlight reel.
In the first inning of his very first-career start, Hunter made a laugh-worthy blunder. When he was with the Texas Rangers, Hunter recorded two quick outs in his debut, but the third batter didn’t go quite as well.
“There was a ground ball to our first baseman (Chris Davis) and we collided at first base and they called pitcher’s interference,” Hunter recalled. “I didn’t even know that was a thing. One way to look at it, you can only look up after that start.”
Nine years later, Hunter has a good sense of humor about it, just like he does about most situations.
“I try to make light of things,” Hunter said. “Important things, things that most people are uncomfortable with, I try to make jokes. I try to make people laugh at my expense. It’s something I like doing.”
Hunter signed with the Rays one month ago yesterday, as a non-roster invitee with a minor-league deal.
He’s no longer a starting pitcher after making the move to the bullpen in the 2013 season when he was with the Baltimore Orioles. The hard-throwing right-hander is in the middle of a tough competition for a spot in the Rays’ bullpen.
In 75 career starts, he had a 4.88 ERA with a 29-23 record. Since becoming a reliever, he has a 3.27 ERA. As a starter, he totaled 435.1 innings pitched, yet he had 236 strikeouts and 102 walks in that span. Compare that to 275.1 innings as a reliever with 210 walks and just 57 walks.
The move to the bullpen has surely extended his career. Typically, a starter will have some hesitance from what could be perceived as a demotion, but Hunter took it in stride.
“It was kind of the only choice I had,” he said. “At the time, things weren’t going as well as you’d want to as a starter. I gave up some runs. Moving to the bullpen was nothing I was uncomfortable with. You’re going to have some bitterness, but I live by a motto ‘Don’t get bitter. Get better.’ If you don’t like where you are, work harder. I take that mindset every day.”
Even though most of his career he was guaranteed his position on the roster, this new situation has altered his mindset.
“You don’t want to take an approach that you’re a shoo-in ever,” Hunter said. “That’s when the chair gets kicked out from underneath you really quick. You have to be graceful when you fall because you have to get back up.”
“It is different, but I like challenges. I accept them. You have to live every day to its fullest and let the card fall where they will.”
Something else he has accepted is the fact that he is the answer to the trivia question “Who allowed Ken Griffey Jr.’s last career home run?”
It’s a strange thing to be proud of, but it’s not like he’s the only one who Griffey hit a home run off of. In fact, Hunter was the 499th pitcher Griffey took deep.
“I got him to sign a jersey for me, and it says ‘Thanks for giving up the last one’ with No. 630 on it,” Hunter said. “I have that hanging in the house. Being a kid, playing Ken Griffey Jr. baseball, that was one of the coolest things. It was unfortunate at the time.”