[EDITOR'S NOTE: I felt oaktoon did Kirby Puckett great justice, so I wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to read this. One thing about Puckett...it seems the en vogue thing these days to go out and guarantee a victory in the press and then become invisible in the game, a la Jerramy Stevens in the Super Bowl and even Joey Porter. Puckett told his teammates that they were going to win that World Series game against the Braves and then he went out and did it. Amazing. - Blez]
First off, there's always sadness when someone dies so young, no matter how many blemishes they've earned and how different their public and private personas may have been.
I want to start at the very beginning-- which for me was the realization that this fireplug of a ballplayer was now patrolling center field for the Twins, and that Bob Costas made some sort of challenge about home runs since obviously the player had no power.
And when Kirby started hitting them-- around 1986 or 87-- all of a sudden everyone followed suit. It's a bit strange to recall the first power boom-- since it was so completely eclipsed a decade later and, for all we know, may have been honestly created-- but in 1987 home runs started to fly. So much that the team of hrbek, Puckett, gaetti and Co. inspired a name-- Homerdome-- for their bizarro park that actually was never supported by the stats.
And then we noticed that this guy played with incredible joy and energy. And that his team got very good all of a sudden, beating our boys to a pennant and World Championship in 1987, despite a mediocre regular season and the presence of only two able starting pitchers. I was priviliged to attend Game Six of that WS-- a series where the home team won every game-- in the loudest non rock concert environment I have ever experienced. When Kent Hrbek hit a grand slam you just knew the Twins were headed to a title (and it didn't hurt that Vince Coleman had been rolled by a tarp)
Puckett was always the heart and soul but after that season his numbers grew gaudier and gaudier. That was right about the time I started playing rotisserie baseball-- and I always envied the owner who dished out money for a guy who would hit 330, with 95+ RBIS and 200+ hits-- I preferred the Rickey route but there were times i wished I had Kirby.
And of course the two teams-- the A's and Twins-- became rivals in that period, winning 5 straight AL pennants between them and 3 WS. The final WS was Puckett's finest hour, as he single-handedly won game Six with a terrific catch and a walk-off homer setting the table for Jack Morris' epic duel with John Smoltz the next night.
Puckett in many ways replaced Ernie Banks (or Pete Rose, for a time) as the game's greatest ambassador. Which made the career ending bout with glaucoma all the more sad, and then we found out things we wished we didn't know.
There are certainly two sides to every story, but the portrait of a violent and selfish human being exacting pain to those closest to him even as he brought joy to many millions who never knew him is one of those very troubling stories of celebrity. I can't defend the man... but I would hope that some can forgive him and could feel remorse that his life was cut so short.
Very few athletes come to represent their communities as sort of "regional Mega Star". Certainly no Viking qualifies anymore. The current Twins have some wonderful players such as Santana and Hunter, but no one with the appeal and panache of a Puckett. Kevin Garnett is a disappointing figure despite his great talent and commitment.
Kirbeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Puckett was the Twin Cities. A little bit of them died today. a little bit of our innocence died a long time ago-- but I'll say this-- 20 or 30 years from now when we're all moving a lot slower, we'll have no trouble remembering that fire hydrant who played center field and always had a smile on his face.