I’ve always had a special place for Kirby. What a perfect name for the guy, by they way. My dad is a huge Twins fan, so I saw my share of Twins games growing up, especially in the late 80’s and early 90’s when they were winning championships (’87 & ’91). He was always fun to watch. Not your prototypical centerfielder, but he played the position well, winning several gold gloves and I can remember more than a few leaps into the baggy in centerfield at the Metrodome to snag away a home run. He was a great hitter, the kind that’s fun to watch because he swung at everything and rarely missed. He wasn’t a moneyballer. He didn’t walk much, he just made contact, enough for a career .318 BA. His induction into the Hall of Fame was somewhat controversial. His career cutshort by glaucoma, he didn’t have 3,000 hits and hit just over two hundred home runs, but he was the heart-and-soul of two World Series winning teams and was well-liked around the league.
He suffered a bit of a hit on his image after he retired. Some things leaked out about how he may not have been as nice a guy as we all thought during his playing career. I heard someone once say that Kirby resented having to do things like visiting kids in the hospital to keep up a good image of himself. He also made the news for a supposed domestic dispute at a restaurant. While these revelations were certainly disturbing, they shouldn’t come as that big of a surprise as the world of the professional athlete is one where these sorts of stories are all too common. It’s hard to know as the adoring public sometimes if these types tales are accurate accounts of a persons character, or some spurned beat writers axe to grind. Ultimately we the fans never really know the answer in most cases. If true the incidents are deplorable and worthy of condemnation.
At the very least, however, Kirby can be admired for what he accomplished on a baseball diamond. Not without his human failings to be certain, as are we all, but he was always dedicated to his teammates and pushed them and himself to excellence on the field of play. I missed seeing him play, and was sad when I heard of his health problems. My dad said he heard Tony Oliva, another Twin great, say that both of Kirby’s parents passed away before 50, and that Kirby felt he was destined to follow in their footsteps. As he got older, he got larger and his health continued to deteriorate to the point where he suffered the stroke just this weak at the age of only 44.
Few athletes’ passing have evoked any kind of emotion in me, but I was saddened to hear about Kirby’s passing. As I get older, more and more of the athletes I grew up watching will die, and I’ll remember how much fun they made sports for me, and miss them for just a little while. Just like I’ll miss Kirby slamming into that plastic bag in centerfield.
Here’s an article by an actual sportswriter, ESPN’s Jim Caple, that I think captures very well what Kirby Puckett was to baseball fans.