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When legends die young
The state of Kirby Puckett
by Mark Anderson

ast month, when word came that Kirby Puckett had died of a stroke a week before his 46th birthday, there were two likely reactions across much of the country: 1) That's too bad; or 2) Who was Kirby Puckett?

Prime Puckett: all-star power and a major-league smile.

But the news brought Minnesota to its knees and stayed on the front pages of the Minneapolis and St. Paul papers for a week. To which many would say that, hey, come on, the guy was only a baseball player.

Certainly none of those folks were around for the 12-year span during which Puckett showed all of Minnesota – from tykes to grandmas to football fans – the joys of baseball, teamwork, good naturedness and winning, all on the major-league level.

In the 20 years before Puckett's 1984 arrival, the state had seen the loss of one World Series, four Super Bowls, a Stanley Cup finals and two presidential elections (Humphrey and Mondale). In the seven years that followed, Minnesota won two World Series and lost its longstanding fear of losing.

Then, after five more seasons and due to the sudden onset of glaucoma, Puckett was forced to retire at 36 – still at the height of his powers. That was 1996 and his final 10 years provided some serious ups and downs.

In 1999, Puckett topped the list of Minnesota's most important 20th-century sports figures as part of the Minneapolis paper's millennium-ending special section featuring a top 100 (including such "lesser" legends as Herb Brooks, George Mikan, Harmon Killebrew and Bronko Nagurski). Then, in 2001, Puckett swept into baseball's Hall of Fame as the third-youngest ever enshrined (behind Gehrig and Koufax).

There was always a catch: Puckett was famous for stealing home runs ... and once stole a grand slam on a weekend in Milwaukee when he also had 10 hits in 11 at-bats.

But that was all about the past. And while Puckett had always had a roly-poly body with a torso shaped more like an olive than a center fielder, photos from the Hall of Fame induction showed his five-foot-eight-inch frame carrying an ungainly amount of weight. Then came disclosures of infidelity, a public divorce, bad press and an embarrassing jury acquittal involving alleged roguish behavior at an upscale Twin Cities sports bar.

Puckett retreated to Phoenix but had plans to marry a Minnesota gal the month after next. And while recent photos showed him looking larger than ever, the weeklong binge of news reports that followed his death told of friends and family describing Puckett in increasingly good spirits.

The Puckett bio, of course, also came to the fore: Youngest of nine kids, grew up poor in a Chicago project that Newsweek once called the place hope went to die. Four hits in his first big-league game, 31 home runs in his third year after hitting four in the first two seasons combined. A batting title, 10 consecutive all-star selections and the ungodly 1987 weekend in Milwaukee with 10 hits in two games – in addition to a catch over the center-field wall that robbed Robin Yount of a grand slam. Most hits of any 20th-century player in their first 10 years, first in baseball to sign a $3-million-a-year contract.

Then there were the two glorious seven-game World Series triumphs. Minnesota's unlikely 1987 champions are often considered the weakest World Series winner in history, while the 1991 Series is considered one of the best of all time. That one included Puckett's storied Game Six, where he told his teammates, "Jump on my back, boys – I'm driving the bus today," then provided a single, a triple, a sacrifice fly, a stolen base and a miraculous catch, all before smacking the legendary 11th-inning walk-off home run to reach another Game Seven, the holiest day in sports.

Meanwhile, back in Minneapolis a week after Puckett's death, some 15,000-20,000 friends, family, fans and peers paid tribute by showing up at the Metrodome. Earlier that same day, a church service attracted an army of ex-teammates along with much of baseball's royalty and reportedly involved as much storytelling about Puckett's mirth-producing fishing and snowmobiling adventures as his game-turning catches and heroic home runs.

Everyone, it seems, had a Kirby Puckett story to tell. This is mine:

Puckett learned a leg kick and went from zero to four to 31 home runs in his first three seasons.

As far back as my Minnesota memory goes, I loved baseball – and things largely stayed that way until I went away to a medium-sized college, tried out for the team and got cut in January without ever pitching to a batter or leaving the gym.

The fates and coincidence, however, steered me toward journalism and something took hold. I turned my back on baseball.

Then, by another coincidence, my first job after college was as a part-time freelance sportswriter – serious, demanding, low-paying work that was far removed from glamour during a time when professional sports salaries started getting totally out of hand.

And while employment in pro sports began to represent minimum salaries measured in quarters of millions of dollars, jobs in sportswriting did not.

That expanding disparity bred a locker room caste system that thrives to this day – especially when compared to the first half of last century, when players and sportswriters often played poker and drank whiskey together as they traveled from city to city by train.

Power generator: Puckett called his ample hindquarters "the Puck pack."

In 10 years on the job I covered maybe 100 Twins games, along with countless other professional, college and prep contests in nearly any sport you can name. Everything passed through the Twin Cities – long a major sports market.

But a big-league locker room is often an unwelcoming place – especially the losing team's sanctum, to which I was frequently dispatched for post-game interviews. Through the years I got snubbed, screamed at, mocked and berated by the arrogant, moody millionaires made obscenely rich by virtue of being especially good at child's play.

Tom Kelly, the snarky longtime manager of the Twins, once asked snidely whether I was the replacement's replacement. (I was.) Another time, a borderline Hall of Fame candidate poked me in the chest with his index finger like an overbearing father to his precocious little boy. (Long story.)

I'd had the job for a couple seasons when Puckett, 24 and two years my junior, came on the scene. It soon became obvious that he was different.

"Hey man, what do you need?" Puckett would ask, treating all comers as if they belonged. "What can I do for you today?"

Then, win or lose, Puckett would take questions and fill his answers with thoughtful observations, colorful quotes and contagious laughter.

Such a welcoming demeanor was unique. In fact, whenever I'm asked what those mysterious professional locker rooms are really like (and I still get asked), invariably I say that they are not particularly pleasant. There was Kirby Puckett and then there was everyone else.

They weren't all jerks, of course, but no one else even came close. Puckett was so at ease with himself and his abilities that he seemed to want everyone else to feel good about themselves and be great at their jobs, too. And so my passion for baseball returned (and remains to this day; I've pitched nearly 450 innings in Portland's 28-and-over leagues during the last 10 summers).

But Puckett was also the main reason for two of the most adrenaline-producing moments I'll ever know: I joined with the entire state of Minnesota as I stood in that Metrodome, screaming my lungs out for joy, as two distinct World Series ended with the right team winning.

As a matter of record, I was living in New York in 1991 and, on a hunch, made midsummer airline reservations to Minneapolis for the final World Series weekend in October. This act of foresight so impressed a friend who worked for the Twins that I scored a decent pair of seats for Game Six and Seven.

But far more remarkable is that hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans – even those without particularly strong feelings for baseball – have somewhat similar feelings about Kirby Puckett.

"Don't take anything for granted," he said at the tearful press conference to announce his abrupt retirement in 1996, "because tomorrow is not promised to any of us." Puckett's eyes are said to have been the only ones in the room to stay dry.

A World Series Game Seven: the holiest day in all of sports (thanks M.W.!).

There's no doubt in my mind that the most exciting play in baseball during the summers of 1984-96 was any of Puckett's 57 triples, wherein that crazy round body looked like a teddy bear pedaling a tricycle around the bases at warp speed.

But it wasn't baseball, it was the way he dealt with people that really set Puckett apart. It's been reported that an inordinate number of dogs and cats throughout the Upper Midwest are named Kirby. When legends die young we get a chance to reconsider them frozen in their own time.

"Puckett wore a smile, not a halo," blared one of the newspaper headlines during last month's bittersweet week.

As it turns out, that was more than enough.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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