April 12, 2006

Kirby Puckett: 1960-2006

Update: I just wanted to add this link to a good story about Kirby.

Some of you may know that Kirby Puckett died a couple weeks ago. I was going to have a whole blog series, lasting two weeks or more detailing every good Kirby Puckett story I knew, but I've decided to tone it down a bit and just try to sum it up. This is a pretty self-indulgent blog, so my recommendation is to just skip it, unless you love baseball or you like Kirby Puckett. I already covered how he won his batting title, so that's one story I won't have to torture you with....

I started following Kirby Puckett purely because of these statistics:


How weird is it for a guy to only hit four homeruns in his first two seasons and then suddenly start hitting enough to be among the league leaders? It's plenty weird. He was the first player ever to have a zero AND a thirty homerun season.

That statistical anomaly was what got my attention, but his style of play and his positive attitude was what made me a fan. Minnesota Twins fans have known about him since his Major League debut: he won the fans over with his enthusiastic style of play (and his record-tying four hits in his first game).

Puckett was an exciting player to watch because he liked to swing. He didn't take very many pitches. BaseballLibrary.com describes him as "an unrepentant free swinger who hacked at anything in the same area code as the strike zone." In perhaps his best season, during which he was second in RBI, second in AVG and led the league in hits and doubles, he walked only 23 times. Beat THAT, Barry Bonds!

Unfortunately, Kirby Puckett's career was cut short. In 1995, in the middle of one of his finest seasons, Denny Martinez threw a pitch that broke Puckett's jaw and put him on the disabled list for the rest of that season. During spring training the next year, he discovered that he had glaucoma and was losing vision in one eye. That was why he retired - he could no longer see the ball well. At his retirement announcement he made sure Denny Martinez was there, so that he could tell the world that he was retiring because of glaucoma and not because of the pitch Martinez had thrown last season. Puckett even hugged the pitcher and told him he loved him. Then he told everyone not to be sad. "Kirby Puckett's going to be all right," he said. "Don't worry about me. I'll show up, and I'll have a smile on my face. The only thing I won't have is this uniform on." He did his best to put a positive spin on things.

Even though his career totals were incredibly low for a Hall-of-Famer, he was inducted into the Hall on his first ballot. The voters took into account his positive attitude and his incredible love for the game. When he played, he had fun, smiled a lot and made the fans smile, too. Cleveland Indians manager Charlie Manuel, who coached Puckett in the minors years ago, even says he uses stories about Puckett's "play and attitude" in order to motivate his team (thebaseballpage.com).

And of course, there is Game Six. I can't leave that out. There is a nice synopsis of Kirby Puckett's game here, but the short version is this: the Twins needed to win or else their season was over. The World Series was on the line. Kirby Puckett gathered the team together before the game and told them not to worry. He said, "You guys should jump on my back tonight. I'm going to carry us." And he did. He had a hand in every run the Twins scored and even made a leaping catch in center field that kept the Braves from scoring more. With the score tied at 3, in the bottom of the eleventh inning, he hit a homerun to win the game.

The press made a huge deal out of the fact that he told his teammates he was going to carry them and that he actually did it, but if you knew Kirby Puckett, you knew that he was always doing this sort of thing - not necessarily carrying the team, but saying things that were unabashedly optimistic. And maybe he didn't come through each and every time, but it always seemed like it to me.

Kirby Puckett knew better than anyone that luck could change at any moment, so it was useless to get upset about your circumstances. In 1990, the Twins finished in last place, but one year later they were the first team ever to win the World Series after a last place season. That kind of thing doesn't happen unless you have a lot of optimism on your side.

Now...I wanted to talk about the bad stuff. Well, no, I didn't want to talk about it - just mention that it existed. Since his retirement, there was a messy divorce, nasty allegations, women with very serious accusations against Puckett. Some of his friends have said that not being able to play baseball really hurt him. He gained weight (even MORE weight, that is). I was going to write a little statement about all this, but someone beat me to it and I can't really improve on what they wrote (ottumwacourier.com):

When Kirby the athlete was in a slump, he always seemed to know that things would start to go his way sooner or later.

"I'm zero for my last 14," he'd say. "You know what that means? That means someone's gonna pay."

Kirby the athlete knew that soon, he'd get the opportunity to light up a weak pitching staff with a five-for-five, four-RBI night. Kirby the person hadn't yet gotten that chance.

The press has been fair in talking about these aspects of his life, but in all their summations of the life of Kirby Puckett, they've dropped the best thing about the man. If you would have heard from HIM how he was doing, he would have done his best to tell you that things were going to turn around.

The following facts I couldn't track down quickly, so this is from my memory and bound to be inexact in some way, but who really cares - it's a baseball story and therefore not much different than the "biggest catch" tales that fishermen tell.... Kirby Puckett, some time in 1986 or 1987, was among the leaders in homeruns and batting average until a slump hit him. A MISERABLE slump. Something like 3 for 36 or 4 for 41, maybe. And throughout this slump, Puckett maintained that he was all right, that he would break out any time and some poor pitcher would pay the price. And he was right. He slammed out ten hits in two games, including four homeruns and four doubles, instantly putting him back among the leaders in AVG and HR. Kpow! Just like that, he was back.

At his hall of fame induction ceremony, in 2001, he was blind in one eye but he was still positive:

"Don't feel sorry for yourself if obstacles get in your way. Our great Twins' World Series teams faced odds and we beat 'em. Jackie Robinson faced odds and made this game truly the national game. And I faced odds when glaucoma took the bat out of my hands, but I didn't give in or feel sorry for myself. I've said it before and I'll say it again: It may be cloudy in my right eye, but the sun is shining very brightly in my left eye."

Puckett knew about the ups and the downs and didn't let the downs get to him. And that's what I've gotten from knowing him as a fan.


Evan said...

Excellent piece, Aaron. Glad I stumbled upon this - the greatest player (to watch/enjoy) of my generation.

Aaron Dietz said...

Thanks, Evan. I appreciate that!

Kirby Puckett is well-missed.