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11/14/09 9:50 PM EST

Hunter wins Branch Rickey Award

Angels outfielder honored for humanitarian contributions

DENVER -- Torii Hunter was surrounded by opulence Saturday night.

The Denver Marriott City Center Hotel was being prepared for a banquet to honor Hunter as the 2009 winner of the Branch Rickey Award for humanitarian contributions. One of the ballrooms was the site of a silent auction, where those with the money and the will to use it for charity bid on fine art and sports memorabilia.

But Hunter's heart was with Denver Kids Inc., the project of the Denver Rotary Club Foundation that the Branch Rickey Award program benefits. He figures many of them are not touched by opulence. Many of them, in other words, are like he was while growing up in Pine Bluff, Ark.

"I grew up pretty rough, pretty tough," Hunter said. "Sometimes we didn't have lights, or have food. My dad was a drug addict. We didn't have much. My grandmother would sit and hold me.

"I'm hungry with no lights, trying to do homework with no lights, with a candle. My grandmother would always tell me, 'When you move up, do better, and [if] God puts you in a position where you can help others, you do it.'"

Hunter's grandmother, Edna Cobbs, passed away last year, but her advice lives. And the proof lives in those Hunter has helped along the way.

Hunter and his wife, Katrina, have donated more than $1 million to the Torii Hunter Project, an effort that focuses on sports, community, education and wellness for young people.

Last December, Hunter began an education initiative, in partnership with the Angels and the Heart of a Champion Foundation, to teach character development, with a goal of reaching 50,000 students in the next four years. He also created "Hunter's Hundred" to provide scholarships to 50,000 students in Anaheim, Las Vegas and Pine Bluff. Part of the program supports the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas.

Hunter realizes not everyone will latch onto the lessons, but using his position as a star baseball player to try to reach young people is a worthy endeavor.

Hunter recalled how he felt when some athletes who escaped Pine Bluff -- a small city that has struggled with drugs and gang issues -- returned to say there was a different way.

"We had a guy named Danny Bradley, he was a [Dallas] Cowboy, and Monte Coleman [formerly with the Washington Redskins] ... those guys, I looked up to," Hunter said. "Monte Coleman, when he spoke, I was the one that listened. He told me how hard he worked. Stay away from drugs. He was always around drugs, but he said he was going to do a different route. He was out there lifting weights or doing sprints while his friends were drinking and smoking and doing other things."

Hunter said he chose to look at his difficult upbringing differently. While his grandmother and mother worked to bring up four boys, his father's struggles were a hindrance. However, Hunter said his father actually helped him.

"He was teaching me a lesson, and he did not know it," Hunter said. "He would go out and do his thing and the lights were cut off, but it taught me how to be a man. I saw him and the way I felt, and I didn't want my kids to ever feel the way I felt. And I was not going to be that guy. I saw a different way.

"A lot of kids look at their parents and they look up to their fathers who might be doing something that they shouldn't be doing. For me, my dad taught me something totally different."

Hunter said early in his pro career, Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett -- interestingly, two past Branch Rickey Award winners -- influenced him to reach beyond the field to help others.

"Theose guys embraced me at 17," Hunter said. "I was in Major League camp in '94. Winfield showed me pictures of his home and talked to me about hitting, about life. Kirby was my older brother. He was always on me. It was just an honor to have Kirby Puckett calling me in the Minor Leagues and giving me a pep talk, or see how I was doing.

"All the works they did in the community; these guys pretty much showed me the way and showed me how to do it."

Hunter said years of helping young people with all aspects of life, from sports to character development to education, is paying off in ways he never imagined.

"When you have a kid go on to college, when you've helped him along with his career in college, and then they come back with a degree, with that scholarship, or whatever it may be with that fundraising back in Arkansas, they come back and say, 'I'm going to medical school,' you're like, 'Wow,'" Hunter said. "I encourage all people to do it, to get that feeling."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.