March 07, 2006


We got the incredibly sad news today that Kirby Puckett has died, of the massive stroke that he suffered yesterday, at the age of 45. As I've been aware of Puckett for as long as I've been a sports fan, and he was my favorite athlete for much of my childhood, I feel as though I've lost someone I've known for my entire life.

Puckett was not only the greatest Twin of all time but, by a significant margin, the best and most important athlete in the history of Minnesota sports. A genuine sports hero in a town that had had few before him, who played his entire career with one team, Puckett was beloved by his town the way few athletes ever have before- as perfect a match of player and city as any in memory.

He was a short, stocky, funny-looking guy, who looked more like the average guy in the bleachers than anyone's idea of a baseball player. His flabby physique likely innoculated him against the charges of steroid use that would plague many of his contemporaries. But most of all, Minnesota fans fell in love with Kirby's personality. Not only was he a hilarious and entertaining interview, but Puckett was loved throughout his career both for his works in the community and for the friendships he cultivated in the game.

Here in Philadelphia, I hear every day about how this city, one with a rich sports tradition, has gone title-less for 23 years. Until Puckett led the Twins to their first world championship in 1987, the Twin Cities had gone 31 years without a title, going back to the win by the old Minneapolis Lakers in 1956.

I first became aware of Puckett probably sometime during his rookie year in 1984, as I believe that was the year my parents got me a life-sized poster that I hung in my bedroom where I could measure my height against that of "Herbie and Kirby" (Kent Hrbek and Puckett- the latter was much closer to my height than the former). As I learned all about the game in 1985, when I was 7, it was by watching those two, along with Gary Gaetti and Tom Brunansky.

I could tell early on that Kirby was a special player. I remember a specific game in Milwaukee, I believe in '86 (edit- it was '87), in which he went 6-for-6 and also made a grand-slam saving catch in center field (one of dozens, literally, throughout his career). And I can still hear the voice of the late Metrodome PA announcer Bob Casey, introducing "#34, KIRBEEEEEEEEEEE PUCKETT!"

Then came that magical season of 1987, when my love of baseball finally manifested itself in winning, instead of just watching. That year, for the only time in my life, I went to spring training, and saw the Twins beat the defending champion New York Mets at Tinker Field in Orlando. They won that game, and every other game that I went to that year, just as they did in '91 as well.

I never forgot seeing Puckett and infielder Al Newman- the superstar and the 25th man on the roster- embracing on the Metrodome field after the Game 7 victory. I was happy to see that video replayed on ESPN today as part of its Kirby remembrance reel.

Between the two title wins, the team was all but torn down and built up again, keeping just five players (and no pitchers) in the four-year period. Kirby even became a free agent after the 1989 season, visiting both the Red Sox and Phillies before agreeing to return to the Twins. Becca and I mused tonight about how different both of our lives would've been had Kirby signed with the Phillies that year. (No '91 World Series for the Twins, but also no need for another centerfielder, and thus no Lenny Dykstra on the Phillies).

After another last-place finish in 1990, lightening improbably struck again the following year. Energized by pitching from youngster Scott Erickson and newcomer Jack Morris, the Twins returned to first place, knocking off Toronto in the ALCS and advancing to the World Series against another worst-to-first team, the Braves.

It was, I maintain, the greatest World Series in history, and just as in 1987 the home team won all seven games. I was there for 2, 6, and 7, and during Game 6 I sat in the upper deck, in front of some very loud and very angry Braves fans, and witnessed the most famous swing of Puck's career: his Game 6 home run off Charlie Liebrandt in the 11th inning on October 26, 1991. I had slightly better seats, thankfully, the following night, when the Twins won their second title by beating the Braves 1-0 in 10 innings.

Puckett was MVP of the 1993 All-Star Game (one of ten All-Star appearances), and continued to be a top player right up until the end. But it ended sadly, in more ways than one.

Kirby woke up one morning during spring training in 1996, unable to see out of his right eye. The day before, he had had two hits off of Greg Maddux in a spring game. Doctors conducted tests throughout the next few months, before determining that there was nothing they could do, and Puckett announced his retirement that June. I remember driving around that night, after leaving a summer camp picnic, unable to imagine a Twins team without Kirby, something I'd never before known.

(An alternate theory was that Puckett's eye injury was not the result of glaucoma but rather a beaning the previous fall at the hands of his good friend, Cleveland pitcher Dennis Martinez, and that Puckett had made up the glaucoma thing in order to protect his friend. Keith Olbermann, in particular, has always pushed this theory.)

In his retirement speech, Kirby pointed out that we shouldn't feel sorry for him, because we should be thinking about Rod Carew, another Twins' legend, whose daughter Michelle had recently died of leukemia.

Puckett periodically resurfaced through the years: the Twins retired his number in 1997, and also retired the seat in left field that the Game 6 home run landed on. He became a team vice president and point man in their new stadium effort. And in 2001, he was elected on the first ballot to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and my dad and I made the trek up to Cooperstown for the ceremony. I couldn't be happier that Kirby, despite what some called deficient stats due to his early retirement, made it into the Hall, and not posthumously.

But then, the following year, Kirby resurfaced in a much more unfortunate way. Reports surfaced that he had been abusive and threatening, as well as unfaithful, to his wife Tonya. A Twins employee accused him of sexual harassment, and he was later indicted (but acquitted) on charges that he groped a woman in the bathroom of a Minnesota restaurant.

It soon became clear both that Puckett wasn't quite the idealized Mr. Perfect we'd always imagined, and that he was one of those athletes who simply was unable to function in retirement. Tonya Puckett divorced him, he gained a shocking amount of weight, he parted ways with the Twins organization and then, in 2005, Minnesota's favorite athlete left town altogether, moving to Arizona.

I'd often said that had Kirby's scandals happened when I was 12 years old, it might have scarred me for life. I've long since shed any illusions about athletes and what they're really about, but Kirby's misdeeds (coupled with those of Mark McGwire and Co.) were still pretty jarring. Bat-girl, in her must-read eulogy, eloquently stated that she has now mourned Kirby three times: after his retirement, after his public fall from grace, and then on Monday. I think we all have.

On top of the dozens of times I saw him play, I met Kirby Puckett twice. When, in the early '90s, my grandfather's car dealership donated a car for a postgame promotion in which fans could win a pickup truck by throwing paper airplanes into the beds of the trucks (don't ask), I was invited onto the field during batting practice to get autographs. The second time came in 1997, when I attended a press conference to announce one of the Twins' many ill-fated stadium plans.

I don't remember what I said to him either time, probably because it hadn't yet sunk in that I was actually across from him. That "not sinking in yet" feeling certainly came to me again, many times, on Monday.

Other Twins and Minnesota bloggers have tributes too, including Gleeman, TwinsGeek, Seth, Powerline, Mitch, and of course Batgirl. I confess, with all the ESPN segments and news articles I've read about Kirby tonight, the tears didn't come until I read the last paragraph of Batgirl's eulogy:

Kirby is still with me, and always will be. Somewhere in the back of my mind he is still jumping up and grabbing homeruns, still circling the bases pumping his fist, still smiling his Kirby-smile. Jack Buck says, "We'll see you tomorrow night," and we ride on Kirby Puckett's back all the way to glory. He is there with us, reminding us why we love baseball, reminding us to love life. And still, a hero.
Farewell, Puck. You've moved on to the big Metrodome in the sky, and Bob Casey is getting ready to announce your name.

Posted by Stephen Silver at March 7, 2006 01:27 AM

Clearly by the legth of your blog post, loved the guy. So sad that he died so young.

Posted by: A at March 7, 2006 10:07 AM

Well done Steve.

Posted by: Dave E. at March 7, 2006 08:00 PM

Beautifully spoken, Steve.

Posted by: tree hugging sister at March 9, 2006 07:50 PM

It's sad of Kirby's passing and I saw on the news yesterday a cool painting of Kirby is being made, I also saw the painting, its pretty big, its like he is realy there. It was sure great to watch him play always so excited and giving 100%, thanks Kirby for the memories.
Life Size Painting of Kirby Puckett

Posted by: JoeS at March 17, 2006 01:08 PM

It's sad of Kirby's passing and I saw on the news yesterday a cool painting of Kirby is being made, I also saw the painting, its pretty big, its like he is realy there. It was sure great to watch him play always so excited and giving 100%, thanks Kirby for the memories.
Life Size Painting of Kirby Puckett

Posted by: JoeS at March 17, 2006 01:17 PM

Talking about life size Kirby Puckett paintings, check out this artist. Cool HUGE painting of Kirby. He's from the Twin Cities or something because there's a reference to "the Old Met" in his bio.

Posted by: Stephen Ales at December 6, 2009 05:17 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?