Kirby Puckett, R.I.P.

kirby puckett.jpgI’ve missed watching Kirby Puckett play ball since he retired in 1996 due to the sudden onset of glaucoma. The classic overachiever, a 5’8″ guy who could track a ball in the outfield like a falcon and instantly fire it back to the infield to nail a runner; who could swing his little bat like a whip and knock singles or home runs, even off bad pitches, almost to order.

Guys like me who still love baseball, long after we probably should’ve moved on to something less juvenile, were continually renewed in our love for the sport by players like Puckett, who died today at 45, one day after suffering a stroke in his Arizona home.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s online obit captures the feeling of Puckett, and recounts some of his great exploits. Here are a few bites:

Puckett had been raised in the Robert Taylor Homes, a south Chicago housing project. He received no college scholarship offers, so he went to work after high school on an assembly line for Ford Motor Co.

“I never forgot where I came from,” Puckett said when he was elected to the Hall of Fame.

The Twins drafted him in 1982, and he reached the big leagues on May 8, 1984. He celebrated his arrival by getting four hits against the team then called the California Angels.

Puckett lore piled up quickly in 1987, when he led the Twins in hits as they rallied from a 3-2 deficit against the St. Louis Cardinals in the best-of-seven series and won their first World Series title. He now had unqualified success to go with his uninhibited style.

“A 7- or 8-year-old kid watching the game would pick him out, and he just looked different,” sportscaster Bob Costas said. “He had an affection for the game, and there was a kind of energy about it that was fun.

“I’m sure he took it seriously. You have to take it seriously in order to be a great player, but there was nothing grim about the way he went about it.”

In 1991, the Twins again found themselves trailing in the World Series 3-2, this time to the Atlanta Braves.

But Puckett went around telling teammates to hop on his back for Game 6, that he would carry them to victory. Then he delivered two signature moments.

First, he made a leaping catch against the Metrodome’s outfield Plexiglas in the third inning and robbed Ron Gant of an extra-base hit, potentially saving a run from scoring. Then, in the 11th inning, Puckett became the ninth player in major league history to win a World Series game with a home run, hitting a changeup from Charlie Leibrandt over the outfield wall and pumping his arms in celebration as he rounded the bases.

“You couldn’t hear yourself think in the ballpark,” former Twins hitting coach Terry Crowley said Monday from Baltimore Orioles camp. “Kirby was on deck. The manager went to the mound, and Kirby said to me, ‘If they leave this guy in the game, the game is over.’

“Sure enough, they left [Leibrandt] in the game. Puckett hit a home run, rounded the bases, and as I went to shake hands with him, he gave me a bear hug and said, ‘Crow, I told you!’ That will stay in my mind forever.”

The obit also covers his personal downfall, the allegations that he violently abused women. He was acquitted in his only trial on the charges, but they took their toll:

After a nine-day trial, a jury ruled Puckett not guilty of false imprisonment, fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct and fifth-degree assault.

“I just want to go home,” Puckett said that day, when the verdicts were released.

He relinquished his role as Twins executive vice president. The team, which retired Puckett’s jersey in 1997, tried maintaining ties to him, but he continued to withdraw.

When friends saw him, they grew increasingly concerned about the weight he was putting on his short frame, with estimates that he was well beyond 300 pounds.

But for those who saw him in Arizona at Harmon Killebrew’s charity golf tournament in November, there was renewed hope. Puckett had spoken of taking better care of himself. Recently, there was news that he planned to remarry in June.

I always wondered what it would be like to be someone like Puckett after retirement, knowing the greatest moments of your life were behind you. The compensation would be all the people who would come up to you to share memories of watching you play. Not just the famous World Series exploits, but the mid-season games no one would remember unless they were in the stands. Games you might not even remember yourself. “Damn, I did that?”

Kirby Puckett deserved many more years to hear the replays through the voices of his fans.

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