TROUBLED PAST FOR 'PUCK' PAST DOESN'T SPOIL MEMORIES
In Kirby Puckett’s playing days in Major League Baseball, he was 5-foot-8, 220 pounds (in good shape) and looked like an oblong, punctured tire rolling across a parking lot when he strutted around the bases. But he was one of the best and most loved players of the 80s and 90s, and now, he’s gone.
The longtime Minnesota Twins outfielder died at the age of 45 Monday after suffering a stroke Sunday in his Arizona home. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001, his first year on the ballot, and while playing, won championships with the Twins in 1987 and 1991.
Though I was only six years old, I remember watching Puckett’s game-winning home run in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series and his leaping catch at the outfield fence earlier in the game. It forced a Game 7 in which the Twins ultimately beat the Atlanta Braves. Glaucoma forced him into a severely premature retirement before the 1996 season.
His on-field accolades, which include a lifetime .318 batting average and ten all-star game appearances, almost came secondary to his reputation as one of baseball’s “good guys.” He won both the Branch Rickey and Roberto Clemente awards for community service among major- league ballplayers, and most fans found him friendly and approachable.
Unfortunately, as is the case with many athlete-heroes, Puckett’s image faced near irreparable damage. In 2003 a Sports Illustrated article aired several rumors about Puckett being a violent womanizer. His longtime “mistress” Laura Nygren accused him of threatening to kill her, and his then-wife Tonya divorced him and made similar accusations.
That same year, Puckett was charged with sexual assault after a Minnesota woman claimed he had groped her in a restaurant bathroom. In the meantime, Puckett had abandoned his front-office job with the Twins and moved to Arizona, hoping to flee the limelight of the scandals. Eventually, the charges against him for this case were dropped.
Those of us who didn’t know Puckett can choose to view him in one of two ways: as a lowlife scoundrel with no respect for women who ruined his life, or as a great baseball player with a humanitarian side and a troubled past. Since speaking ill of the dead does little good, I choose the latter, and I’ll tell you what the ballplayer, if not the man, meant to me.
As a Little Leaguer, I liked donuts a lot more than sit-ups, and my pre-pubescent figure showed it. Sure, I loved baseball, and it may shock some of you that know me, but I could hit a little bit, too. The muscle-bound Frank Thomas and the slender Ken Griffey Jr., and Barry Bonds (he was slender at the time) were slugging balls out of major-league ballparks in the early 90s, but Puckett wasn’t. Instead, his philosophy was simply try to meet the ball with the bat and then run like hell to first. I can remember a coaches saying, “Try to swing level, just like Kirby Puckett.”
Puckett was no steroid-breath like some of the other cretins in the games at the time. To a kid, he looked like a guy you could eat ice cream with after the game, and to the adult, he looked like a guy who would accompany you to a bar. In today’s game, the race to build the biggest bicep and hit the longest home run makes Puckett-like players a near extinct breed. Puckett very well may have been a jerk beneath his façade, but I don’t know that. What I do know is he played hard, with a smile, and gave chubby kids hope.