It’s been two years since Kirby Puckett’s death, and to commemorate the occasion, former Minneapolis Star Tribune baseball writer Howard Sinker has posted in his blog the contributed thoughts of a number of readers. With the addition of comments from readers, the article has grown exponentially in length and in poignancy.
Reading the remembrances of others got me thinking about what Kirby Puckett meant to me as a baseball fan – how could it not have that affect? So here goes…
With Kirby Puckett, it wasn’t just that he was the best hitter on the team, although he was. And it wasn’t just that he was the best fielder on the team, although he was. And come to think of it, it wasn’t even that he was the best teammate on the team, although he was. Puckett was even more than the sum of these parts, because he had star quality, incredible self-confidence, and oodles of personality.
But there was still more at work in the Puckett package: he was unpredictable. I mean that Puckett was like a volatile substance; he could ignite or explode as a result of contact with any other agent, or for no apparent reason at all. He wasn’t prone to lengthy slumps, but he could go on an incredible hitting streak at the drop of the hat. Remember how Puckett hit leadoff home runs the first two days of the 1986 season, after hitting just four homers in over 1000 career at-bats previously? Remember Puckett going 4 for 5 one day in Milwaukee in 1988, then going 6 for 6 the next day, with two singles, two doubles, and two home runs? Remember his repeated 7-RBI days in 1994?
Puckett’s accomplishments with the bat were historic. He was one of only five players in history to amass 1000 hits in his first five seasons, and one of only two to amass 2000 hits in his first ten seasons. He led the majors in hits with over 200 per season for four consecutive years. His .356 average in 1988 was the highest by a right-hander in the last 60 years, and his .318 career average is the highest by a righty since Joe DiMaggio. In his penultimate campaign Puckett had more RBIs than games (112 to 108), but that was the strike-shortened ’94 season.
And yet there was more. Kirby was a defensive weapon, too – he was deceptively fast and had a rocket of a throwing arm. In his too-short twelve year career, Puckett amassed an astounding 4392 putouts and 143 outfield assists. Who could ever forget his over-the-wall catches, robbing so many ballplayers of home runs? And what about that unforgettable catch against the plexiglass in game 6 of the 1991 World Series? Puckett timed it perfectly, jumped a good 40 inches vertically, and amazed us all by snagging the ball just inches before it would have hit the wall. Puckett was awarded only six gold gloves in his career, mainly because Ken Griffey Jr, who was more glamorous, played the same position. But the Puck deserved more.
That sixth game of the ’91 World Series must be one of the all-time great individual single-game performances in the Fall Classic. Every fan remembers the eye-popping catch and the home 11th inning home run, but most people don’t realize that he also had a single, a triple, and a sacrifice bunt in the same game.
Puckett was an unlikely looking little giant. At 5’8″ Puckett carried well over 200 lbs for most of his major league career. His forearms were so big they were a little bit scary, but his big butt and chubby cheeks made him the darling of little kids, old ladies, and let’s face it, most grown men, too. He really did look like a cartoon character. Later in life he let himself go, but he must have worked very hard to keep in the kind of shape he played in.
One contributor to the Howard Sinker blog said this: “He was my hero not because I wanted to play baseball as well as he did, but because he wanted to play baseball as much as I did.”
You can Howard Sinker’s blog at: http://ww3.startribune.com/blogs/sinker/2008/03/06/remembering-kirby-puckett/