This appreciation of Kirby Puckett, by senior writer Michael Knisley, first appeared in the July 22, 1996, issue of The Sporting News, after Puckett was forced to retire because of problems with his vision. Five years later, he would be a part of the 2001 Hall of Fame class and 10 years later — after post-retirement revelations about his personal life — he would be dead, at 45, from a stroke. Some 15,000 fans attended a memorial service at the Metrodome, where Harmon Killebrew and Dave Winfield spoke.
It’s a measure of the character in both men, the way Dennis Martinez and Kirby Puckett came to a conference room in the Metrodome last Friday. Puckett came to announce that his playing days are finished. Martinez came to hear him say it.
Last September, a pitch from Martinez crushed the left side of Puckett’s face. Whether the pitch had anything to do with the glaucoma that turned 20/20 vision into a 20/400 log in Puckett’s right eye is a subject of some conjecture. Publicly, its role is being downplayed. Privately, who can be absolutely certain the pitch’s residual effect isn’t a factor? In any event, the pitch was thrown during the last at-bat of Puckett’s career. He didn’t, and won’t, play again.
As it happens, Cleveland played in Minneapolis last weekend, and a handful of Indians went to Puckett’s news conference. Martinez, who is one of baseball’s most honorable men, was among them. And Puckett, who is one or baseball’s truest jewels, shone through one final time.
“Dennis Martinez sitting back there has taken a lot of crap for an accident that happened last year,” Puckett said. “I’m telling you now, I love Dennis Martinez, and he didn’t do it on purpose. I was just leaning in there too far. I was what you call cheating, and I couldn’t get out of the way in time.”
And so the game’s most irrepressible spirit leaves with a class and a grace far too singular to professional sports. At its best, baseball is a kid’s game. By playing it with the gladness of a child, Puckett, even at 35, never let us see anything but the best in baseball. How many players — how many of us employed in any line of work, for that matter — take the same barefaced delight in work that Puckett brought to the ballpark day after day after day?
Even baseball’s other icons, from Cal Ripken to Ozzie Smith to Greg Maddux to Wade Boggs to Ken Griffey Jr. and beyond, don’t play with the undisguised joy that radiated out of Puckett on a daily basis.
Ripken saved the game last season with the steadying influence of his consecutive-games streak, but his demeanor on the field, as well as off, is workmanlike, hardly gleeful. Ozzie, in the earlier years, was poetry in motion at shortstop. But his past and present battles with management and managers will leave a little stain on the way we remember his relationship to the game.
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Maddux is a magician on the mound, but rarely are we witness to the enjoyment he takes in his work, as we were constantly with Kirby. The way Boggs swings is sweet, but the lesson learned in the Margo Adams Affair has put a cautious distance between Boggs and the game’s public.
Griffey, Mo Vaughn and Frank Thomas come close among players who appear to have staying power at the top of the game. But the force of their fine personalities is a night light next to the way Puckett brightens up a room
Elrod Hendricks, the longtime Orioles player and coach, said as much last weekend when he heard the news that Puckett’s eye problems were to end his days in uniform. Hendricks, whose love for the game seems to bubble over at the drop of a hat, said. “What baseball really needs is another 600 Kirby Pucketts.”
Only one man still playing lets the game wash over him with as much unreserved pleasure as Puckett. When Tony Gwynn leaves baseball, a little more of the game’s life will leave with him, as the game lost a little of its vitality with Puckett’s departure
Gwynn, like Puckett, simply isn’t able to keep a ballyard smile off his face, come hell. contract squabbles, injuries, work stoppages or high water. The same outpouring of affection for Gwynn should occur when and if his career, now in its 15th season, ever comes to a close. Perish the thought.
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Neither Gwynn, who is on the disabled list with the Padres, nor Puckett played in the All-Star Game last week, the first time neither was on the field since 1983. Philadelphia put on a nice show without them, but from here the usual All-Star jolliness lacked a little something, a spark, whatever. It could have been the National League’s breezy 6-0 win, an anti-drama, but I think it was more than that. I noticed it even before Ripken verbalized it after the game, saying a number of players seemed to miss Puckett’s presence.
I’ll remember Puckett as a wonderful player, of course, charisma aside. He ought to be a Hall of Famer, no questions asked, on the strength of his .318 career batting average and his six Gold Gloves, even if his 2,304 hits and 207 home runs fall short of Cooperstown’s generally accepted standards of 3,000 and 300.
When this season started. Puckett was fifth among active players in batting average, ninth in RBIs, 10th in doubles, 12th in hits and 14th in runs and first in character and personality.
I’ll remember October 26, 1991, too. A friend in the business, UPI’s Rich Dubroff, keeps a detailed scorebook of playoff and World Series games. Last weekend, we pulled out his book from that night’s Game 6 of the ’91 Series. Puckett’s 16 category line was jammed full with damn near everything one player can do in a game: a single, a triple, the game-winning home run in the bottom of the 11th, RBIs (three), runs scored, a sacrifice, a stolen base, put-outs (including his spectacular catch of a Ron Gant drive in the third inning). The only vacant lines were for doubles, errors, assists, walks (although the Braves walked him three times the next night in Game 7). And hit-by-pitches.
I wasn’t close to the game when Ernie Banks retired in 1971. but I suspect maybe the loss wasn’t felt so hard as Puckett’s will be. Am I wrong in thinking baseball in Banks’ time wasn’t so hard-bitten by the bristly realities of the game in the 1990s? And that, consequently, Banks irrepressible good will wasn’t so badly needed then?
I do know this. Every day was a beautiful day for a Kirby Puckett ballgame or two. And I wonder if the days are going to be as nice from now on.
Kirby Puckett and the 1991 World Series
Ask Twin Cities fans of a certain age about peak Puckett, and they’ll point to Game 6 of the 1991 World Series against the Braves at the louder than loud Metrodome.
Kirby Puckett’s astounding, leaping catch of Ron Gant’s drive to the wall in left-center. His walkoff home run in the 11th to tie the Series at three games apiece. Just his general being the right guy in the right place — every … single … time.
Here, in a selection of quotes from the Nov. 4, 1991, issue is how The Sporting News captured the end of a classic Fall Classic.
Puckett on his home run to end Game 6:
“It was the biggest homer I’ve ever hit, and it was in a game I’ll never forget — pretty awesome. I feel like I’ve just gone 15 rounds with Evander Holyfield.
“This may had been the first time I can remember I’ve gone up looking for a certain pitch to hit out. I’m not used to hitting game-winning homers.
“I always feel I have to do something in the clutch, but it doesn’t always work out that way. That’s why I told myself as I was going around the bases: ‘Well, you finally did something you said you were going to do.’”
Puckett on his third-inning catch in Game 6 to rob Ron Gant:
“The play was instinct, and you can’t practice that. All you can do is get back to the fence and time your leap perfectly. And that’s what I did.”
Commissioner Fay Vincent:
“That catch was perfectly Jordanesque.”
Sporting News editor John Rawlings on the Series:
Kirby Puckett put on the greatest one-man display since Reggie Jackson changed his name to Mr. October with three home runs to win the 1977 Series for the Yankees.
Sporting News columnist Dave Kindred on the Series:
The World Series of 1991 stands alone. There is no need to thumb through record books. No need to ask historians for perspective. Anyone lucky enough to have seen this one nows what it was. It was baseball as good as it gets. It’s just too bad the Twins and Braves quit so soon.
Vincent to Braves owner Ted Turner:
“Why don’t we play all winter and make it the best of 90?”
Braves first baseman Sid Bream on the Series:
“I was standing in the shower (after Game 7) thinking, “We’ll get ’em tomorrow. Suddenly, it hit me. There really is no tomorrow.”
Puckett, asked whether he could finally smile after the Twins won Game 7:
“Smile? I can’t smile. I’m too tired. It’s a great feeling to win, but I can’t explain it now.”