On January 12th, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak made what seemed to be an uneventful free agent signing when he inked outfielder Cedric Hunter to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.
Hunter had been a 3rd round choice of the San Diego Padres back in the 2006 MLB Amateur Draft out of a Georgia high school.
He rose slowly through the Friars’ farm system, and finally received his first big league shot at the start of the 2011 season.
Over the Padres’ first seven games that season, Hunter appeared in six of them, but did not start a single game.
He went 1-4 with a run scored in those seven games, including his first Major League hit on April 5th, 2011 as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the 6th inning against San Francisco Giants relief pitcher Guillermo Mota.
But those seven games would prove to be the extent of Hunter’s big league career.
Over the ensuing four years he bounced from the Padres to the Saint Louis Cardinals then to the Cleveland Indians, and on to the Atlanta Braves.
He played in places like Tucson and Akron, Memphis and Columbus. But none of those are Major League towns.
So when the Phillies made their signing and handed him that invitation to come to Clearwater, it was with few expectations.
The hope was that he could become a reliable player for AAA Lehigh Valley, and possibly veteran depth should the Phils need some help at some point during the season before their prospects were ready for a promotion.
Hunter was having none of it. Early on in the Grapefruit League season, on March 4th to be exact, Hunter blasted a walkoff grand slam at Bright House Field to give the Phillies a 12-11 victory over the Braves.
He continued to impress all spring long, finishing with three homers and a dozen RBI, tied for 3rd on the club. Thanks somewhat to a season-threatening injury to Aaron Altherr and his own strong play, Hunter did indeed make the Opening Day roster.
More than just making the roster, Hunter has become a starter for these rebuilding Phillies.
While the club anticipates the arrival of the speedy Roman Quinn and the powerful Nick Williams, and with young Tyler Goeddel deemed not quite ready for a full-time role by the club decision makers, Hunter is being leaned on to provide those placeholder innings.
On Thursday in Cincinnati, all of Hunter’s hard work and perseverance finally paid another dividend.
Leading off the top of the 4th inning against the host Reds top prospect, right-hander Robert Stephenson, Hunter ripped the first home run of his big league career out on a line drive to right field.
When he sliced that first career base hit all the way back in 2011, Hunter never received the ball, something that is highly unusual in today’s game.
He will be receiving this ball, and the memory will be especially sweet. Not because of anything that it helped the team to achieve, as the club would go on to lose on this day.
But the ball will be special because he never gave up on himself, and as a result, he is finally getting a chance to live the dream as a big league regular.