Monday, March 06, 2006

Hang In There, Puck

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.


Anonymous said...

For anyone outside of Minnesota, let me try to put Kirby Puckett's impact on Minnesota in perspective.

Prior to 1987, Minnesota was a state of losers. We didn't just feel like losers, we knew that we were losers. The Vikings lost four Super Bowls, Minnesotans Humphrey and Mondale had lost presidential elections, the North Stars lost in the Stanley Cup finals, the Gophers stunk year after year, and so on.

Then Kirby Puckett led a ragtag bunch of young players and gave them an identity. It was an identity Minnesotans could relate to: over-achieving, fun-loving underdogs. Kirby Puckett was the King of Minnesota after the Twins won the World Series in 1987 -- and Minnesotans were finally winners.

Kirby Puckett was such a sensation as a young player that Bob Costas named a child after him. In 1988, Kirby batted .356 -- the highest right-handed batting average in the American League for two generations. He won the AL batting title in 1989. He was the youngest player to reach 1000 career hits since the 1930s. Kirby also had one of the single greatest individual performances in World Series history in Game 6 in 1991, keeping the Twins alive for their eventual second World Championship. He now sits among the all-time greats in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I have no greater hero than Kirby Puckett. I think about him to this day. When I do something above the call of duty or with extra hustle, I imagine Kirby leaping to catch a flyball against the center field fence or stretching a single into a double -- his stocky, cubic frame churning with piston legs defying the laws of physics. He came from the projects in Chicago, where hope goes to languish and die anonymously. He was too small to play in the big leagues, but he proved everyone wrong. He had courage and energy to spare. He was a living example of the Little Engine That Could. He was always kind and gracious -- especially to kids. He was truly an ambassador for baseball and Minnesota.

Much has been written about heroes who inevitably let us down. Kirby was, after all, a man. However, nothing can ever take away the memories of Kirby puting his team and the entire state of Minnesota on his back and making us winners again and again.

My thoughts and prayers go out to Kirby, his family and friends. I am sure that I am just one of thousands of people who have similar feelings about him in this dark hour.

There is a final lesson we can learn from Kirby, I believe. 44 is WAY TOO YOUNG to be in critical condition. His stroke has caused me to evaluate my own health. I will be going to the doctor for a full check-up this week. I hope that others will do the same. While we are all "day-to-day" as the cliche says, we can learn from Kirby's experience and take care of ourselves as much as possible.

With tears and sadness I wish your peace and strength. Thank you and God Bless.

Lin said...

I lived in Milwaukee when Kirby played for Minnesota and he was one of the few players NOT playing for the Brewers who was true favorite among Milwaukee's youth. The two big names in baseball in the mid to late 80s for my young son were Kirby Puckett and Paul Molitor. I just hope Kirby can heal. It's so sad.

Joe said...

My condolences to all Twins fans out there.