Minnesota Twins legend Kirby Puckett suffered a stroke yesterday and is in critical condition in an Arizona hospital. In a comment over at Batgirl’s site, local baseball blogger Twins Geek eloquently expressed exactly what I have been feeling since I heard the news:
“I don't mind telling you that I considered Puckett to be one of the more inspirational athletes in sports. I was proud, damn proud, that he represented Minnesota and the Twins. There are people, not just athletes, but people, that you root for because you want the world to make sense. You want the world to reward those people for their passion, their ability, their morality or their values. These are people you want to believe in because you believe in what they embody.
For me, Kirby was one of these people. Why? Let me count the ways. There was the joy he displayed while playing a game that beats players down. There was his kindness to teammates and strangers. There was his rise from poverty. There was his acknowledgement that he was one of the luckiest men on the face of the earth. And finally there was his recognition that he was a role model to kids, and needed to act like one.
The revelations a couple of years ago soiled a lot of that for a lot of us. But it also reminded us that heroes are human, and gave us a new reason to root for him. Today is reminding me that heroes are mortal too, and maybe we need to take the inspiration while we can.”
Kirby Puckett was a hero of iconic proportions in Minnesota. His on-field prowess, his place at the heart of both the ’87 and ’91 World Series teams, the work he and his wife did with local children’s charities, and his cheerful, enthusiastic persona made him irresistible. He was one of the most popular players in the Major Leagues, but even people who didn’t much care about baseball commonly had pets, and even children, named “Kirby.”
A series of ugly personal issues caused Puckett to remove himself from the pubic eye after his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001, and he hasn’t been talked about a lot since then. I suspect that, like me, lots of people felt hoodwinked by Kirby Puckett. We all continue to struggle to reconcile the Puckett we grew up adoring with the guy who later seemed to be on a mission of self-destruction.
Certainly it’s fitting that, when the news broke, former teammate Dan Gladden flew to Arizona to be at Puckett’s bedside. But what I find really telling is that current centerfielder Torii Hunter considers Puckett such a close friend and mentor that Hunter took himself out of yesterday’s spring training game because he was too upset to play. And Jacque Jones, who is now a Chicago Cub, visited the hospital personally yesterday. Puckett has demonstrated that he has his demons, but there is no denying that his legacy continues to impact the Twins organization, and that he still has the love and respect of Twins players and staff, both past and present. And based on the people I’ve talked to and the things I’ve read since yesterday, his legacy has had a huge impact on a lot of Minnesota citizens as well.
My secret hope has always been that Kirby had a plan to lay low down in Arizona for a while, get his act together and then, someday, re-emerge to rebuild his reputation here in Minnesota. Today I say a little prayer that he still might still have the chance.