legends die young
state of Kirby Puckett
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?
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
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).
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
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:
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
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.
generator: Puckett called his ample hindquarters "the Puck
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
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
| A World
Series Game Seven: the holiest day in all of sports (thanks
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.