Batting Third, Number 34…

The day I met Kirby Puckett

Batgirl’s keeping an updated entry with Star Tribune coverage, but the short version is, my childhood hero, Kirby Puckett, had a stroke yesterday morning and is in critical condition at an Arizona hospital today.

I stayed up late to watch him win the sixth game of the 1991 World Series with an 11th inning homerun. When my fifth grade class took a tour of the Metrodome, I joined in with everyone else in trying to replicate Kirby’s amazing catches at the wall in deep center field. How did he jump that high? None of us came anywhere close. My friend and I defended his honor against a bunch of drunken Brewer fans at a game in Milwaukee — they probably hated him for the weekend when he had 11 hits in two games against the Brewers. I saw one of those games too.
When it was announced that he woke up one day in spring training and saw spots out of his right eye, I was worried, but not too worried. It was Kirby, and he was invincible. Yet, as his eye got worse and the season started with him on the DL, I started saving every retrospective the Strib published. When he finally announced his retirement that July, I cried to myself in my grandmother’s bathroom. Then I watched his retirement speech on the five o’clock news where he told us not to cry for him because he had a full life and he got to play baseball — and so I didn’t anymore. But I still kept all of the newspaper articles I could get my hands on. They’re still stacked in my closet at home.
When he was elected to the Hall of Fame on his first ballot, I convinced my dad to schedule my sister’s college tour such that we could be in Cooperstown to see his induction ceremony. On that weekend, if you judged solely by the license plates of most of the cars, you would have thought that Cooperstown was in Minnesota.
Ignoring the scandals that plagued him in the early 2000’s, that was probably his legacy. Not only was he the face of the Twins, but he was the face of all Minnesota sports. When the Twins were terrible, the Vikings stunk, the North Stars moved to Texas, and the Timberwolves a brand new team just trying to win a few games, the Twin Cities could still be proud because we had Kirby Puckett, a virtual lock to start in the All-Star game every season he was out there. Every backyard ballgame, including more than a few that I played in, had a kid that wanted to be the centerfielder and hit a homerun, just like him. He was everyones hero.
We haven’t really had Kirby Puckett as a hero for a few years now, but there have been pushes to get him back into the Twins organization recently as a spring training coach or maybe more. Here’s to hoping that we still have that chance.
Edit: Farewell, Kirby.


20 responses »

  1. Very touching entry. The glaucoma forced him into retirement from the game, but he didn’t retire from life. If he can live with that, I think we have to hope he’ll take on his latest challenge with the same determination.

  2. This was an amazingly written entry. We just have to hold out hope….and keep him in our thoughts and our prayers. #34 just has to make it through this.

  3. Kirby was actually something of a charlatan.
    Frank DeFord’s piece for Sports Illustrated has set the record straight (unfortunately for Kirby’s fans).
    He was more con-artist than good-guy.
    I don’t think any state of the union would have wanted him to represent them after the relevations about his true personality came to light.
    It’s a shame to see anyone die so young.
    But I don’t think anyone who knows the full story (loaded guns, attempted rape, etc) about the man will bee fooled again into making him into a hero in death.

  4. Glenn,
    I understand what you’re saying, but the problem is that there were really two Kirby Pucketts: the legend and the man. Part of what made the legend what it was is that people believed in the man behind it as well. I admit that that belief was stretched and strained a few years ago, and for some it was completely obliviated. I myself have never really been able to decide what to think about it — and so mostly I try not to. I suppose that’s naive, but we’re talking about childhood heroes here. There’s an innocence in that that refuses to go away. The Kirby I knew growing up was what brought me to baseball, and no scandal will ever take that away from me. I never knew the man and I can’t speak to who he was or what he stood for, though I find the stories that came out about him, true or not, to be incredibly sad for all parties. But I, like a lot of people, knew the legend. And that is what I mourn tonight.
    Edit: An old Page 2 article about the Deford article and heroes and good men and bad men and baseball… I recommend it to anyone who ever had a favorite baseball player.

  5. Erin,
    I understand how you and others would like to celebrate the “idea” of Kirby Puckett.
    It’s just that death in and of itself is not accomplishment enough to warrant praise. The way he lived his life (public and private) ought to factor in much more.
    His treatment of women rated higer in my book more than, say, his batting average. Perhaps you disagree.
    My point is only this: He belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but not the Human Being Hall of Fame.
    The question is- which do you find more important?

  6. As far as death not being an accomplishment that warrants praise… I don’t think anyone is praising his death. People are praising his life, or more accurately, how he affected their lives (which for most of us, he did as a ballplayer, not a family man). And isn’t that what paying your last respects is all about? Don’t you pay your last respects when someone dies?
    As to your question… I wish that was a simple question to answer. But ultimately for me, I choose the batting average. And I say this as one who has spent a lot of effort raising money and awareness for domestic violence prevention and treatment programs, so it’s not like I’m just flippantly defending a guy that hit a few homeruns in my youth or that I disagree with what you are saying. But as I mentioned before, I never knew the man. I never knew the women in his life. That side of him never affected me personally.
    But I did know dozens, if not hundreds, of people, including myself, who were moved and touched by his “myth” and public persona. Every sports hero has his demons — Mantle was a drunk, Ruth was a womanizer. We as fans would do best not to equate the ballplayer with the man off the field. But we did with Kirby — and he invited us to. Part of what makes reconciling his private behavior with his public behavior so difficult is that it seems that every fan who ran into him on the street was led to believe that he really was as great and as kind as we wanted him to be. (Just look at the comments on my other Puckett post for an example of this — or listen to all of the callers on Minnesota radio stations today.)
    Maybe it was all an act that duped us and we foolishly bought into it… but you know what? I kind of don’t care. Bob Costas was quoted in the Page 2 article I linked to above as asking “When a dark side is revealed in a man, does that render all the good that man did as untrue?” It’s not an easy question to answer, and maybe it’s just a way to rationalize the fact that we can’t help but still look up to this guy who turned out to be just another human being with serious flaws. But I think it would be disingenuous for us to entirely disregard the joy and delight he made us feel in the late 80’s and early 90’s, as if it never happened.
    Ultimately for me, this is a man who loved the game of baseball and that showed in every game he played, every at bat he had, every autograph he signed for a little kid. His on-field spirit is part of why I am the baseball nut I am today, who brings her scorebook to every game and records every pitch. That’s the legacy he left with me. So that’s what I choose to remember today.

  7. What a touching entry. I am glad that Kirby touched you in this way and you have learned a lot from him.
    When I was little now I’m 26 I met him too, he signed a piece of paper I had and I at one point wanted to rob home runs too. As I got older I forgot about him though I knew how important he was still to people.
    The greatest part about Kirby was how he set an example to what sport-players could be like-on the field he loved the game, you could tell, he played so hard with all his heart and he loved the other players-that’s why he was soooo good. Do you remember Kirby and reports on complaining about how much money he was making? or endorsements? No. He was too busy playing the game, loving it, and sharing it with everyone he crossed.
    I won’t miss his batting,or his leaping or dives, or slides, it’s his heart and love for the game and others that loved the game that I will miss.
    glad we had someone like him to experience our childhood-adulthood with.
    great entry again.

  8. Glen raises a valid point. Let’s face it, baseball IS just a game and one for children at that. And Kirby excelled at that game, but in real life? maybe not so much…
    but wait, how about all those people who were personally touched by Kirby (not those, the other ones, the ones who’ve been blogging to high heaven). Could they all be wrong? Are their stories just apocryphal memories of an evil, evil man? Turn the Costas question the other way, “does all the good Kirby did outweigh the evil?”
    Boy, that’s a tougher question, because I can’t hide behind the triteness of “any evil being all evil.” Ignore his batting statistics, but what about the seemingly countless stories of how he helped or was nice to someone. I thank God (and somewhat literally as well) that I don’t have to judge, nor should I.
    Ultimately, I feel sorry for Glen. In his quest for reality, he loses much. No one can measure to that standard of perfection, but that doesn’t mean there are no “good” people. I don’t know which side God will come down on, but then it doesn’t really matter. After all, I can hear what I want to hear and disregard the rest… and I’ll continue to hear the good and truly wonderful things that Kirby’s life brought to so many.
    The rest doesn’t matter to me anymore.

  9. This has truly been a learning experience for me with regard to the mentality of Minnesota sport fans.
    Thank you all.
    I have pointed this site out to others and they are equally amazed.
    *”In his quest for reality, he loses much.”
    *”I never knew the women in his life. That side of him never affected me personally.”

  10. Glenn —
    A man you clearly never knew on any level — man or legend — is dead. And at a point in his life when, by all accounts, he was trying to turn things around for himself. There’s a time and a place for your comments, and the day after a man dies is not one of them. I am puzzled as to why you feel so compelled to repeatedly come back here and point out things we already know about him.
    A lot of blogs more prominent than mine, Batgirl for example, have been deleting comments like yours because they’re upsetting to a lot of people who actually did know him — including Puckett’s ex-wife. I’m leaving yours up, because they are an element of Puckett’s life and I think it’s dishonest to completely ignore them. But you start insulting an entire state of baseball fans who are trying to deal with a complicated loss of a baseball hero who maybe they had already lost, and you’ve crossed the line.

  11. Erin,
    Points taken.
    You mention Puckett’s wife…
    I just wonder how Puckett’s victims feel after seeing their predator exhalted and his critics censored.
    I would also suggest to you that there is no “wrong” time to say the “right” thing.
    In fact, I can think of no better time than now to add some perspective to things.
    I suppose I’m just frustrated by the callousness of those who want to sweep Puckett’s true character under the rug until he’s out of the news.
    At a certain point, compassion for a millionaire abuser of women and a total disregard for his victims (in the name of “he made me feel good when I was 12”) just seems a bit askew to me.
    But then, I’m not from Minnesota and was not a childhood fan of Kirby Puckett.
    So you’ll have to forgive me.

  12. Glen,
    Isn’t it both disingenuous and hubris to suggest that you know the “true character” of Kirby Puckett? Clearly, the many folks who have fond memories of KP don’t necessarily know either. But that’s essentially the point of this discussion.
    Since we don’t know and can’t. We frame our image on the evidence we have. There have been countless stories attesting to wonderful deeds of the civilian Kirby. And there are as many regarding his baseball deeds.
    In your world, and one of inestimable character I presume, a black mark is total blackness. Yes, it’s true that much of the praise ignores the “dark side” of a man. But then, you’ve never answered my original question, “does all the good Kirby did outweigh the evil?”
    Or to ask it another way, is the world a better place for KP’s life, neutral or worse? I understand that you in your Sisyphean search for truth argue that because there was bad then it’s all bad. But do you actually believe that?
    It’s the argument that we should have no heroes because all men are flawed that rankles. In a world of such triteness, you lose the opportunity to feel goodness. Again, aren’t we charged with loving the sinner and not the sin?
    Of course, the appreciation of Kirby is overdone. But where’s the harm, not in my world, perhaps in yours. I’d love to hear a coherent explanation of why such a “reality” is better?

  13. Russ et al,
    It’s clear that you are content to bask in the on-field glory of this baseball player without being bothered by his documented and despicable activities off-field.
    Fair enough.
    A prideful willingness to compartmentalize and rationalize such as that is a difficult undertaking and it is one that I’m not eager to bite off.
    Because I suspect that knowledge is power (rather than the “ignorance is bliss” model endorsed here by you, Russ), I will favor you with a parting link to a story run by CNN/Sports Illustrated.
    And while I don’t consider my contribution here to be quite as polarized as Russ has attempted to portray it (I was, after all, advocating at least a more nuanced memorial than he seems to) I can understand the desire to hope against hope that our heroes are all we imagined them to be.
    I was 10 once myself.
    But once there is clear evidence to suggest otherwise, are we not obligated to consider that as well?
    Is there any “harm” in putting one’s fingers in one’s ears, closing one’s eyes and saying “lalalalalalala” when confronted with negativity? In turning a blind eye to bad acts?
    I think I know the answer. What’s more, I think most of you do as well.
    The word “fan” is derived from “fanatic”, after all.
    And Mr. Puckett’s fans are certainly formidable in their resolve to stand by their man regardless of what they might be standing in to do so…

  14. Glenn:
    Kirby Puckett, Twin’s baseball 1984-96……… That’s what we’re talking about here. A career cut short… much like your alienating comments should be. We don’t need any Yankee fans in this dugout. Get it?
    Take your ball and go home. Nobody wants to play with you. Why you take some glory in setting the record straight telling us what we already know is beyond me. You don’t get it. We KNOW the record. Now go save a furry animal or a tree or something. This is why we say…

  15. Look, all the Puckett discussion is great and I appreciate the comments from random strangers leaving their memories. I don’t even mind the (non-flame baiting) dissenters or those who disagree with the dissenters. But can we keep it respectful? No one deserves to be accused of being a Yankee fan without proof.

  16. Erin,
    You are right. After all, for all I know he is from Boston… or Milwaukee! It doesn’t matter.
    Hey, here’s a news flash for ya, I don’t live in Minnesota. I’d like to, but this darn career keeps gettin’ in my way. Just to put a dateline on me, I was going to be finished with the Twins back in -79- when Calvin decided to let Carew go to California (I’d say Angels, but then that would start confusing people). See, that was back in the day when players stayed with teams for more than 2 or even 3 years (avg. 6-8) and when fans, excuse me, “team followers” stuck with a team through thick and thin… not like those Packer jackets that came out in the mid-90’s… (Sorry Green Bay). At any rate, my rebellious attitude lasted about a week into the next season… and it had totally disappeared by ’84 when Puck came up. I guess I harbor a grudge against the Yankees ever since Yogi threw me of the field… another cherished story. As I hinted, it could be them or anyone… don’t miss my point which is simply that if your not a Twins fan, you don’t know what there is to miss about Puckett and the rest of those winning teams of 87 and 91. So Glenn must be off burning books or disco records this weekend… enjoy the peace and quiet. “That’s all I’m sayin’, man”. And don’t give me no more dizzle… whatever that means.

  17. I went to college in Cambridge, MA and lived there for a year after graduation — I actually started this blog to document the Red Sox in the 2004 World Series. So to me, calling someone a Yankees fan is pretty much as bad as it gets, baseball-wise.
    Oh, and I’m with you on the Packer thing. When they won the Super Bowl, I was the only one at the Super Bowl party not cheering for them.

  18. Erin,
    I agree that the term “Yankee fan” is about as low a pejorative as I can imagine.
    And, as it happens, I am a Red Sox enthusiast (a former season ticket holder, in fact) and I too attended school on the better side of the Charles.
    (And had Puckett been on the Red Sox, I can assure you he’d have been raked over the coals there long ago for his misdeeds. He would not have dared to venture onto the diamond at Fenway.)
    That aside…Ron- your suggestion here that, because I am not a rabid fan of documented woman abusers, I simply must be a book-burning tree hugger (yes, I’ve read your other marvelous entries) who “just doesn’t get it” is fun math.
    You do bring a unique perspective, I’ll say that much for you.
    You continue to represent yourself and your fellow fans keenly here.
    Go Twins!
    PS, your latest masterwork reads as though you’ve had about enough “dizzle” for one night, old boy.

  19. Glenn,
    Kirby was an amazing man who touched so many people. I think you are already aware of that. I don’t condone rape (which he was cleared of that allegation – I don’t know if you’re aware of that, since it sounds like you get most of your info. from SI). Kirby was a man who came from humble beginnings and became a Hall of Famer, despite his small, “pudgy” frame. He had a love and excitement for the game of baseball that you don’t see too often these days. He went out of his way to make people happy, whether that was through his celebrity pool tournament, or taking his entire dinner time at a nice restuarant to talk with an old lady (my grandma). People are mourning a local hero right now, who may not be perfect, but he is someone’s son…someone’s daddy…and thousands of peoples’ reason for growing up to be baseball fans. Are you perfect? Have you never done wrong? I hope that when you pass away some day, you will have a loving, respectful funeral,and rememberance. If you are so high on your pedistal that during a time of grief for so many people for their beloved local hero, you feel the need to point your finger in all of our faces and tell us why he wasn’t perfect…I just have to question where this comes from? Go email Bill Clinton, Michael Jordan, or some other celebrity who is alive and maybe you can change THEIR ways – so that when they die they won’t have the same people like you stomping on their graves. Okay, I feel a little better now.

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