Kirby Puckett

By Jerold Wells Jr.
Updated: March 8, 2006

CONNECTICUT—In our lives there are divides. Age, wealth, race, and sex all separate us in various ways. The things that separate us form wide chasms that very few people voluntarily cross.

Then there are bridges. There are those things that create a way for people to relate to each other in spite of the gaps. Kirby Puckett personified such a bridge. He brought people together regardless of socio-economic standing or race. His passing means more than what your run of the mill baseball icons would. It touches too many areas of life. Too often critics of sports diehards say, “It’s just a game” or “You’re taking that way too seriously.” They dismiss our passion and they discredit our fervor. To them I offer Kirby Puckett. He took a game and used it to make himself larger than life. He showed that maybe it is more than a game.

Men and women, rich and poor, black and white, or young and old, could appreciate Puckett’s excellence as a baseball player. In many ways he was a person who transcended sport and provided the type of hero that is instrumental to states, cities, and communities. In short he provided inspiration.

For a black youth with Minnesota ties in the early 90’s there wasn’t really much to gravitate towards. Legendary musicians Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were before our time as was the amazing Minnesota Viking Alan Page. The musical wizard Prince made music we couldn’t quite understand yet, Hall of Famer Dave Winfield was our parents hero, the pop sensations Next wouldn’t sing about being “Too Close” for another few years, and Kevin Garnett had yet to be delivered.

The one thing, the one person, we did have was Kirby Puckett. The Minnesota Twins outfielder and hero of the 1991 World Series was our champion. His 1000-watt smile and infectious personality endeared us to him. His style of play and seemingly effortless success made him our male lead. In the movie of life he was the winner that overcame enormous odds to achieve things his original surroundings couldn’t offer. He stepped out of his situation to create a better one for himself and his family.

In baseball Puckett found a way to escape the Chicago streets that claim many, many more lives than they release. His talent illuminated a light that eventually led him to Minneapolis, Minnesota where he became a sports icon. Using the guise of a baseball player Kirby Puckett morphed into the face of a franchise, a city, and eventually a whole region. He was the sort of player youths hungry for a role model could look up to.

If we could play basketball the way he played baseball, if we could perform on the football field as he did on the baseball diamond, if we could defy odds in life as he did to even reach the national spotlight perhaps we could be the type of star in our own lives the way he was on a national level. Maybe we could be something more than what our backgrounds predicted. If Kirby could, surely we could too.

In his prime Puckett was the best all-around outfielder in the league. With all due respect to Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds, Puckett combined a slick fielding glove, range in the outfield, and a strong arm with the ability to hit for average, power, and drive in runs to form a potent mixture. Combine that with genuine leadership skills and the knack for playing his best in high-pressure situations (neither of which Bonds and Griffey Jr. have managed to master) and Puckett was clearly the class of the league during the early to mid 90’s.

What made Puckett so admirable was the fact that he wasn’t perceived to be a “natural.” Much has been made about his physical appearance and justifiably so. To call Puckett short and stout is putting it kindly. Despite his stature, Puckett’s effort was never lacking, his drive never less than top speed. Maybe that’s why we loved him so much. Kirby is the only player in league history to register 0 as well as 20 home runs in a single season, a testament to a tireless work ethic that allowed him to steadily improve every year he played. At a glance he would seem more of a fit in a janitors uniform than a baseball uniform. In spite of his physical appearance, Puckett managed to squeeze truly phenomenal feats of physicality out of his round frame.

Before Torrii Hunter made a career out of robbing would be home run hitters in center field, Puckett made it look effortless. Before Joe Mauer sprayed line drives to all fields in the Metrodome, Puckett collected multiples Silver Slugger Awards (most hits in a season). Before Justin Morneau blasted home runs into the blue fold up seats Kirby Puckett made a name for himself as one of the most complete hitters of his era.

Kirby Puckett was the common man’s hero. His place in the history of the Minnesota Twins organization cannot be understated. He bridged the gap, he set the standard, he held the name of the Minnesota Twins high enough for all to see and admire. More than that, he was strong enough to mold it into something great. I still look back on the ’91 World Series with awe. John Smoltz’ Hall of Fame credentials begin with that series and Jack Morris’ end with it. The greatest pitching duel of the “live ball” era would not have materialized had Kirby Puckett not put on a show for the ages in Game 6 of the Championship series. Kirby’s star, that of a position player, even affected pitchers.

Puckett’s star didn’t just shine under the bright lights of championship competition. It could be viewed plainly in every aspect of his baseball career. Even teammates of his during the last five years of his career, which coincided with a team shake up and mini rebuilding process, speak highly of his effervescent personality, his jovial spirit and awesome leadership ability. Some say it’s harder to lead when no one is watching, but the words of Puckett’s peers speak volumes. In good times and bad, he was there leading and being an example of what a professional baseball player should be.

Major League Baseball, the state of Minnesota, and a whole generation of young men lost an icon earlier this week. If you haven’t witnessed one of Kirby’s performances then you haven’t witnessed one of the best to ever do it. If you only know the Puckett who grew closer and closer to controversy the longer he stayed retired then you haven’t become familiar with a man who was quite simply riveting.

If you aren’t deeply saddened by passing then you didn’t lose a hero.