Dave's Sports Views

Analysis, humor and opinion on the sports world

Location: Dallas, Texas, United States

Monday, March 06, 2006

A terrible day

It's sadly ironic that I started reading a new book on Babe Ruth on Friday, and now, three days later, I'm writing a few thoughts on another large, delightful man with a voracious appetite for baseball and life.

Kirby Puckett died today at age 45, and while the Hall of Famer won't be thought of in quite the same breath as baseball's most transcendent figure, in Minnesota, where I lived for most of the past 13 years, he was very much a Ruthian figure.

Puckett's infectious enthusiasm and genuine joy while playing 12 seasons in the major leagues reminded one of Ruth. His round body certainly would, though Ruth was taller and, for much of his career, well-muscled. And Puckett's appetite for food and women certainly are traits he shares with the Bambino.

There's one big difference, though. I never saw Ruth play. Everything I've written about him comes from reliable sources. Everything I'm writing about Puckett comes from the experiencing of watching him, and, in a few cases, interviewing him.

While no Ruth, Puckett was damn good. Good enough to accrue more hits in his first 10 major league seasons than anyone since the 19th century. Good enough to lead the Twins to two World Series titles. Good enough to win six Gold Gloves and six Silver Slugger Awards, and earn 10 All-Star appearances. Good enough to hit .318 lifetime, never hitting below .288 in any season.

Puckett, with one of the oddest body shapes in his sport, did almost everything well. His only shortcoming was the inability to draw walks. Kirby just wanted to swing the bat so much. And you can't argue with the outcome of that philosophy.

I was there the day he retired from the game, after he was stricken with glaucoma in the spring of 1996. Surgery couldn't cure the problem, and Puckett was forced to tell a stunned group of teammates, Cleveland Indians opponents, team executives and reporters that he was unable to play baseball anymore.

All of us, as rational human beings with at least some knowledge of health and science, understood that glaucoma was a condition that would likely force his retirement. But all of us, as people who had watched Puckett, interacted with him, and admired his boyish optimism didn't want to believe in our hearts that he was through. Why Puckett, one of the best ambassadors baseball ever had?

My job that day was to write the "game story," which really wasn't about the game. I mentioned only the score, and that couldn't even be read until the story had jumped inside the sports section. All the players -- and all of us media -- wanted to talk about was Kirby.

"How can you prepare yourself for something like that?" said Marty Cordova. "It never seemed like it was going to be this serious."

"The best compliment I could pay Puck is that he made me laugh, just being out there," said Rich Becker.

Rick Aguilera, who had a locker adjacent to Puckett's for much of their careers in Minnesota, summed it up best: "I've played with a lot of great players in this game. But it was always a pleasure to be around him. He brought a great feeling into the clubhouse, the bus, the plane. That's where people's real character show."

The words seem all the more melancholy nearly 10 years later, with the news that Puckett was felled by a massive stroke. The rational side of us, again, might have seen it coming. Puckett had gained so much weight that he had to be at risk for health problems. And the fact that a blockage of blood vessels to his eye had ended his career, might have made us keen to him being a particularly high risk for a stroke.

But again, we bought into the person. Puckett's size was just another manifestation of his zest for life, since he couldn't display it on the baseball diamond any more. He displayed that optimism and joy in his interactions with people, and, despite the incidents that had tarnished his image over the past five years, he was someone we all believed was a fundamentally good, if deeply flawed, human being. So now, again, we ask, why him? Because we can't believe in our hearts that he is gone.

Three days after he retired, I went on a Boston sports radio station to talk about Puckett (and Jack Morris and Darryl Strawberry, who were playing with the minor league St. Paul Saints that summer in an effort to return to the majors). The host asked me about Puckett's odds for the Hall of Fame. There was no doubt in my mind, I said, that he was a Hall of Famer. I recited the stats, the big-game heroics, the contributions to the game overall, and said I that he would get the benefit of the doubt from most media, to whom he was virtually an icon.

In hindsight, Puckett got in just in time, in 2001, before all of the allegations from his personal life hit the news and tarnished his legacy. So today I choose to think back to his induction, to what I knew of him and what I thought of him then: a remarkable and unique baseball player whose career -- and now, sadly, his life -- ended way too soon.



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