March 06, 2006

Touch 'Em All

I met Kirby Puckett one time, at some sort of media event or another back after the miserable '86 season.

I remember him saying something to the effect of "stick with us, everyone; we'll do better next year."

And in the back of my mind, the way it came across, I actually believed it.

Puckett was right, maybe beyond his own expectations. Or maybe not.

You've no doubt heard the news; a hemorraging stroke killed Puckett; his death was announced about 10 minutes ago.

Navel-gazing dime-store philosophers chatter about the almost spiritual timelessness of baseball. Puckett at the top of his game made you believe it.

There were times, living in Minnesota - the Sad Sack of sports states, the little state that traditionally couldn't - when one had to pinch oneself to realize you were in the same place and time as a player like Kirby; a Hall of Famer with the highest right-handed batting average since DiMaggio and the ability to galvanize a team of journeymen around him into one of the most successful rummage-sale franchises of its era.

Pat Reusse, at his best:

Rick Stelmaszek is the longest-serving Twins coach. He was extra tight with Puckett since they both grew up on the South Side of Chicago.

"Those 15 minutes from the end of infield until we went back down the stairs to play the game," Stelmaszek said. "That was the 'Puck Comedy Show.' He was in every corner of the clubhouse, getting guys loose.

"Twenty minutes to 7: We waited for Puck to make the announcement, 'I'm driving the bus tonight, boys. You're along for the ride.' And if it was a night when he said hop on the bus, he always came through.

"Game 6, right? Unbelievable."

Game 6, Twins-Braves, 1991 World Series.

There was more time than usual between taking infield and the first pitch. And Puckett made sure everyone in the clubhouse knew this: They could start worrying about Game 7, because he was going to take care of this one and keep the Twins alive.

"Puck had gotten us to extra innings, and then Atlanta brought in Charlie Leibrandt to pitch," Stelmaszek said. "I was down in our bullpen, and Puck was screaming at me, 'Stelly! It's over, Stelly.' And, then he hit the home run."

There was nothing quite like the feeling of being in downtown Minneapolis, the nights of the Game Sevens of both of the World Series, the ones that Jack Morris and Jeff Reardon put away but that Puck got us into through such heroics, keeping the Twinks in the match during the inevitably-hairy Game Sixes that, in hindsight, were so utterly crucial.

Puckett's departure from the game - premature, but showing a kind of class that one doesn't associate with sports anymore - led to some unplanned, unseemly twists in Puckett's life, and finally to his disappearance from the city for which he did so very much. But watching the tapes of Puck playing back in the day - on the field and on the street after both of the World Championships - one can still get the feeling that the world got a whole lot lighter, than everything was possible.

I miss that today, very badly.

God bless you, Kirby Puckett.

Posted by Mitch at March 6, 2006 07:44 PM | TrackBack

An excellent tribute, Mitch. Puckett was the kind of player every fan wants on his team and very few get. My condolences to Puckett's family, friends and fans.

Posted by: angryclown at March 6, 2006 08:06 PM


Posted by: Eracus at March 6, 2006 08:12 PM

Kirby was the kind of guy you couldn't dislike. As a long suffering Brewers fan, he made it fun to root for the Twins when the weren't playing MKE, and it took the sting out of the many losses to the Twins. Not many like him.

Posted by: Patrick at March 6, 2006 08:20 PM

I am probably among about 500,000 people who claim to have been among the 55,000 who were in the Metrodome for that game six against the Braves. It will remain for me the single greatest championship athletic performance I've ever witnessed in person, and I've seen more than a few. What was eerie about it was that it seemed so predictable; the crowd just knew that Puckett was going to make that catch in the third, it just knew he was going to drive in a go-ahead run later in the game, and I remember when Bob Casey announced that the Braves were bringing in Leibrandt to face Puckett to lead off in extra innings, after the Braves had tied it up again, the people around me just knew that Puckett was going to hit the ball hard somewhere, if we didn't know he was going to hit it over the fence.

Puckett's greatest attribute as a player, beyond the obvious talent, was that he played the game so consistently and unbelievably hard, and not in a surly manner, but in a infectiously joyous way that had a huge effect on his teammates. His kind won't be seen again.

Posted by: Will Allen at March 6, 2006 08:47 PM

I was at hame 6 of the 87 World Series. I saw Kirby do some pretty spectacular things then. I thought Dan Gladden's grand slam was electric and Kent Hrebek's slam was so special being hit by the hometown kid.........BUT Puckett's performance in game six in 91 is (and I suspect always will be) one of the most spectacular achievements in all of professional sports. Thank you Puck. And just a thought; if we somehow get a Twins stadium deal cooked with the Twins my vote for a name would be Puckett Field.

Posted by: Ed at March 6, 2006 09:23 PM

It's almost like Kirby was created and put on Earth to be a sports hero, and team leader, and when he couldn't do that anymore, he kind of fell apart. I saw a recent photo of him on the news, and he was just enormous. He must have been over 300 lbs. in the photo I saw.

Posted by: RBMN at March 6, 2006 09:27 PM

Great tribute, Mitch.

For me, another great memory was his 'Weekend in Milwaukee' series the last weekend in August, 1987. The Twins were awful on the road that year but monsters of the Metrodome. They got to Milwaukee having not won a road series in almost 2 months. Then they lost the first game. As he did so often, Kirby hoisted the team to his powerful shoulders and hit them to a series win, going 10-for-12, including an incredible 6-for-6 Sunday performance.

Or how about his 4-for-4 Game 6 against the Cards? I was building deer stands that day up by Park Rapids so I had to listen to the game on radio. That was another 'Kirby & Herbie' Day. Kirby was the billy club that pounded on the victim until he was ripe for the kill. Herbie hit the grand slam off Ken Dayley to crush the Cards' hopes of popping the bubbly that night. How couldn't you love that team?

Kirby, we'll miss you.

Posted by: Gary Gross at March 6, 2006 09:36 PM

The six most memorable words to any Minnesota fan,"And we'll see you tomorrow night!" We'll always have 87 & 91, thanks Puck!

Posted by: Phil Van Schepen at March 6, 2006 10:49 PM

Brilliant, Mitch!

I believe I have Game 6 on VHS. I think we made need to watch it Friday.


Posted by: Flash at March 6, 2006 10:53 PM

The story of rising from the projects of Chicago and hitting rolled up socks beacuse there was no ball. Accidently discovered by a Twins scout when Puck was playing a Junior College game. Once a Twin he started by going 4 for 4 after a cab ride to the airport. Started as a weak singles hitter and progressed to a solid gap and HR hitter. Memories inlcude:

Being one of the only guys who could get on top of a Randy Johnson fastball

Strong accurate arm

Almost killing Seattle pitcher Shields with a rocket off of his face

More hits than almost anyone in history in his first full ten years in the league

Almost always delivered in the clutch

Hitting one into the monuments in Yankee Stadium

Playing every innning in his first allstar game as a sign of respect

Bob Costas named his son after Kirby when he lost a bet

Was the greatest Twin of all time

Much like a soldier who can no longer fight, Kirby was never the same after he lost his vision. His purpose in life was to be a ballplayer and that was taken away.

His story never had the happy ending or the successful homecoming. We celebrate for what he gave us and mourn for his death as the upper mid west was linked at his hip in times of battle. We died with defeats and screamed and shouted with victory. It was our victory, Puck, you and 5 million other people. And it was glorious!

Godspeed Kirby, I pray you are now a 30 year old slugger playing in the cornfields with Roberto, Babe and Satchel. I can almost hear the crack of the bat as you swing and rip a pitch at your head on a line drive screaming into the gap.

Thanks for the memories.

Posted by: headhunter at March 6, 2006 11:38 PM

I have been a Cardinal fan since the early 1950s (and they weren't that good a team). After getting cheated out of a World Series Championship in Kansas City, I was up for the '87 World Series. After they lost to the Twins in fairly dramatic fashion, all I could think was, "Well, at least they lost to a good club and a helluva ballplayer."

How could anyone not like Kirby Puckett? I couldn't even really root against him. He was the kind of player everyone wishes he could be.

I'm glad he made it to the Hall in time to enjoy it (I hope).

Posted by: Dave Ivers at March 7, 2006 12:06 AM

How beloved and revered was Puckett? Even media members joined the "love fest".

Someone already mentioned that Bob Costas named his son after Kirby. Bob Ryan, Boston Globe columnist, registered his golden retriever with the American Kennel Club as "Ryan's Kirby Puckett."

My sincere condolences to Puck's family.

Posted by: Brad at March 7, 2006 12:25 AM

Too young to go away.....

1987 and 91 are just yesterday....

Things are truly going

bad..bad day..

Posted by: Greg at March 7, 2006 08:43 AM

I'm not even much of a baseball fan, but the mere thought of Puck puts a smile on my face.

THAT'S baseball. That's Kirby Puckett.

I can't even get too down about his death (other than the fact that he was FAR too young)... much like when my grandmother died, I can't help but grin or laugh thinking about Kirby, the Twins' winning those two series, and the spirit he brought.

Posted by: Badda-Blogger at March 7, 2006 09:48 AM

Your tribute was touching and poignant. A nice way to remember a great Minnesotan sports figure. Nice Job.

Posted by: Andy at March 7, 2006 10:52 AM

Nice tribute Mitch.

Kirby was a classy player and a heck of a hard worker. We'll miss him.

Posted by: nerdbert at March 7, 2006 11:21 AM

Very well done Mitch. Puckett just personified the Twins franchise. The little guy who could!!!

Posted by: WinktheVike at March 7, 2006 11:56 AM

I have always been a die hard baseball fan. My baseball hero growing up was Ernie Banks because of his fire and love of the game. Kirby Puckett was another Ernie Banks. His smile lit up the ball park and you just knew that regardless of how the game went, Kirby was going to give everything that he had to the game at hand. You knew you were in for a treat anytime he played! We are in a much sadder place today, but I'll bet they are playing 2 in heaven!!

Posted by: The Lady Logician at March 7, 2006 12:53 PM

I listened to Fox Sports on XM radio last night on a trip from Minneapolis to North Dakota. They dedicated the entire four hour show to Kirby. Although there were so many touching stories about Kirby, the one that brought tears was the following.

A man called in that his kid brother was being treated for cancer at the Mayo Clinic in October, 1991. On the morning of Game 6, Kirby Puckett, unannounced, arrived at the Mayo Clinic with balloons and gifts for the sick kids. He stopped and visited with this man's brother and told him (I paraphrase) only the good die young.

His brother died as did Kirby, both way too young. Thank you Kirby for the memories of baseball and your kindness.

Posted by: beancounter at March 7, 2006 01:03 PM

I watched the '91 World Series on TV. I fell asleep a little while before Puckett's game-winning home run in that Game 6, and resolved that I would not miss the ending of Game 7. That Series was one of the greatest I ever saw. Thank you, Kirby, for being an uplifting ballplayer.

Posted by: Easton Ellsworth at March 7, 2006 07:21 PM

Didn't Jeff Reardon get arrested for bank robbery recently?

What's with this glamorizing a bunch of thugs?

Posted by: Kip Hoge at March 8, 2006 12:04 AM

Reardon, if you must know, was in the midst of towering grief over the death of his son, and suffering from deep, deep, depression. He walked into a jewelry store unarmed, falsely informed the person behind the counter that he was armed, and after having been given about seventy five dollars (Reardon is not suffering financial hardship), he loitered outside the store for a short time, before casually strolling over to a nearby restaurant. The police, of course, found him in short order, whereupon he immediately told them what he had done. This is a deeply distressed man who apparently had no intent other than to force himself to change his current mode of dealing with his life, in a very sad and pathetic way. You, sir, or madam, are a gaping orifice.

Posted by: Will Allen at March 8, 2006 01:31 AM

I grew up in Chicago in the 1960s hungry for a championship. Walter Payton and the Bears finally gave me one in 1985, but it wasn't until I arrived in Minnesota in September of 1990 that I got my baseball championship, thanks in no small part to Kirby Puckett. Both Sweetness and Kirby are gone now, and the world feels a little emptier still.

Posted by: Bob at March 8, 2006 12:15 PM


I hear ya; I grew up in NoDak following Da Bearss and (via Herb Carneal, who was the voice of summer for most of my childhood into my twenties), the Twinks.

Payton and Puckett.


Posted by: mitch at March 8, 2006 05:07 PM

Posted by: Clark Boggart at May 3, 2006 05:25 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?