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Ten Year Anniversary Of Kirby Puckett's Death

Without question, my first real hero in baseball was Kirby Puckett. Without question, Kirby Puckett was my last real baseball hero. Anyone who grew up a baseball fan in the mid-80s through the mid-90s likely had the same baseball role model as me, Kirby Puckett.

Ten years ago today, Kirby Puckett passed away at the age of 45, a day after suffering a massive stroke at his home in Arizona. I’ve shared some of the below at various times in the past, but I felt like sharing my thoughts on Puckett. I’m certain, and I hope, many of you will share your memories as well.
Image courtesy of Seth Stohs
March 5, 2006, was a Sunday. I was at my house surfing the internet. Early in the afternoon, news came out the Kirby Puckett had suffered a stroke. It was a shock, one of those moments where your heart misses a beat. But all along I kept thinking, “Well, it’s Kirby Puckett. He’s going to be OK. He's got to be OK.”

It wasn’t long before the tone of the reports shifted and the outlook didn’t look very good. We heard that Dan Gladden and others were traveling to Arizona.

I went to work that Monday morning with a heavy heart. As soon as I got to the office, I printed off a picture of Kirby Puckett and taped it up on the overhead bin in my cubicle. Under it, another print-out had the words “Get Well, Kirby!”

If I recall, Puckett passed away that morning. I read the news. The “Get Well Kirby” was replaced with “RIP, Kirby! The Greatest!”

I had been blogging for about three years already at that time so people around the office knew that I was a baseball fan and a Twins fan. Before noon, I had dozens of people come to my desk and feel the need to talk about, to ask me if I had heard. I answered their questions. But it hurt.

I had to leave. I just had to get out of the office. I left the office and went home. I just wanted to be alone. I don’t remember if I shed tears, but I do remember just sitting in a chair, numb. I remember asking myself how many 30-year-olds in Minnesota were feeling the same way I was. That was a rough day.

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When you’re young and you play baseball, you have to have a favorite player and a favorite team. Being from Minnesota, of course my favorite team was the Minnesota Twins. Favorite player? Well, everyone had TBS at that time, and I watched quite a few Braves games. For some reason, I never really liked the Cubs, but I loved the Braves. Claudell Washington was my first favorite player.

But I was a Twins fan. My parents would take us to the Metrodome a time or two a year. We’d get there for batting practice and try to get some autographs. The Twins were on TV much less at that time, and living in the outstate, it was even more rare. It wasn’t until 1989 that the Twins games were on Midwest Sports Center (and later Fox Sports North) and we could get a large majority of the games.

In 1984, I was eight years old. Kirby Puckett was called up to the Twins. He had four hits in his big league debut. I was immediately a fan. Was it because he was short and stocky, like eight-year-old me? Maybe. Was it that he was really fast and the Twins really needed a center fielder badly? I guess, but probably not likely. Was it because he had such a cool name? I think there is a lot of truth in that one.

I had been collecting baseball cards since 1982 and had already learned what the numbers on the back meant and could do a lot of the math in my head. By 1984, I was reading box scores in the newspaper most every day. And now I had a name that I could look for first in the paper.

Puckett CF 5 1 2 1

When I did watch him more, I just enjoyed it. He swung at pretty much everything. The pitch could be six inches off the plate, and he would swing, and usually end up getting a hit. He played so hard, and he looked like he was having a blast.

I remember getting ready for school one day in 1985, Puckett’s second season. It was late April. Puckett did not hit a home run during his rookie season. On April 22, 1985, Puckett hit his first home run. I believe it was after my bedtime. The next morning, I remember sitting on the living room couch, struggling to tie my shoes. My mom came into the room and said, “Seth, did you hear? Kirby Puckett his his first home run last night!”

I was so excited, but that’s what it is like for a kid’s favorite player. You remember the minutiae like sitting on the couch and looking at your mom when she walks into the room. Mom walked into the room where I was getting ready for school hundreds of times in my youth. That morning is the only one that I remember vividly. That’s what it is when you have a sports hero.

A few years later, I was playing summer baseball on a team where we got real uniforms. What number did I request? 34, of course. While I wasn’t always able to get that number, I tried. When I moved up to varsity basketball as a junior, something strange happened. Home jerseys were odd numbers, and road jerseys were even numbers. My home jersey number was 55. My varsity baseball number had been five, and my high school football number became 55, so I was happy with 55. Because of that, I probably should have gone with uniform 54 on the road in basketball. No, I went with 34.

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It’s awesome when the player that you idolized as an eight-year-old becomes a great player too. That doesn’t hurt. And, Puckett was a great, great player. Think about it. As a rookie he hit .292 and finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting. The next year, he hit .288.

And then he took off. From 1986 through 1995, he was an all-star all ten years. He won six Gold Gloves in center field and made so many of those leaping catches over the eight-foot wall. He won six Silver Slugger awards. He finished in the top 10 in AL MVP voting seven times, finishing second in 1992 and third in 1987 and 1988. Five times he had over 200 hits and led the league four times.

Sure, he didn’t like walking, but advanced stats sure showed him to be great. After those first two seasons, his OPS+ never dipped below 119.

Because of his physique, people would often talk about how he wouldn't age well on the field. His final two seasons were 1994 and 1995. They were his age 34 and 35 seasons. He posted OPS of .902 and .894, the third and fifth best seasons of his career.

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Kirby Puckett joined a strong core of young players when he came up, and that core helped the Twins to the 1987 championship. Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky, and Tim Laudner were all with the Twins already when Puckett joined them.

That 1987 team was special. They were a group of guys who seemed to really gel together as a team, and build into a champion. Twins fans felt it. Twins fans even today recall that team and those players with special fondness.

Brunansky was traded early in 1988. Viola won the 1988 Cy Young but in 1989 he was traded. Gary Gaetti left via free agency. However, Puckett and Hrbek were still around. So were Dan Gladden, Al Newman and Gene Larkin. They were now joined by the likes of Knoblauch, Scott Erickson and Rule 5 pick Shane Mack. Kevin Tapani and Rick Aguilera came to the Twins in the Viola trade. The Twins brought in Jack Morris, Chili Davis and Mike Pagliarulo via free agency.

That team was also very special. In 1990, the Twins had the worst record in the American League. In 1991, the Twins faced the Atlanta Braves in the World Series. The Braves had finished last in the National League in 1990. The two teams produced what many call the greatest World Series of all time.

Kirby Puckett played a big role in each of those World Championships. He had those shining moments that fans just can’t forget. He was fortunate that his teammates helped get the team to the position where Puckett could come up big. Consider the following:
  • 1987 ALCS vs Detroit - He went 1-13 in the first three games of the series before going 4-11 with a homer in the final two games.
  • 1987 World Series - Through game five, Puckett was just 4-20 (.200). Then in Game 6, he went 4-4. Then he went 2-4 with a double in Game 7.
  • 1991 ALCS vs Toronto - He was 1-7 in the first two games. In games three through five, he went 8-14 with a double and two home runs.
  • 1991 World Series - Through the first five games, Puckett went 3-18 (.167). And we all remember Game 6. He had The Catch, and then he had the “We’ll see you tomorrow night” walk-off home run to send it to Game 7.
Fans love the story of Puckett going into the the clubhouse before Game 6 in 1991 and telling the team that he was going to put them on his back. And then he came through. Puckett was the clear leader of those Tom Kelly championship teams.

In 1987, I was in 7th grade. I remember after Game 5 thinking that the Twins were down 3-2, but they were good at home. I had hope, but it was tough. I remember Game 7. My family was watching the game upstairs on our main TV. I was down in the unfinished basement, watching on a fuzzy, snowy, black-and-white TV. By myself. I couldn’t stand to be around people. It was just too exciting.

In 1991, I was a junior in high school. I mean, I remember it much, much more. I remember that feeling in my heart during Game 6. I remember the intensity of Game 7. Jack Morris was tremendous, but so was John Smoltz. Do you remember the 3-2-3 double play? Ron Gant and Kent Hrbek. Chuck Knoblauch deeking Lonnie Smith to save a run. Gene Larkin singling to deep right. Dan Gladden running home from third. Ron Gardenhire running around third base as if he were an airplane. Jack Morris summoning Gladden to and the simultaneous jump of that pile as Gladden hopped on home plate.

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Things ended unfortunately for Puckett. He was hit by a running Dennis Martinez pitch very late in that 1995 season. His jaw was broken and his season was over. Although that incident is not the reason, it would prove to be the final at-bat of his career.

It ended his season. He came to spring training in 1996, and he was just crushing the ball. Paul Molitor had signed with the team, and Chuck Knoblauch was one of the game’s best players at that time. There was a lot of excitement. However, on March 28th, right before the start of the season, Puckett woke up unable to see out of his right eye. Soon, he was diagnosed with glaucoma. Four surgeries later and nothing more could be done. Puckett announced his retirement.

At this point, I was in college. It was another moment where my eyes just might have contained some sweat. Watching the press conference and seeing tears flowing from Knoblauch and Molitor’s eyes was hard.

-------------------------------------------------

Five years later, he was on the Hall of Fame ballot. In my mind, he was an easy choice to be a Hall of Famer, but until it is official you just never know. In the end, Puckett easily made it in the first ballot.

Immediately I made calls to my dad and my brother. We had a trip to plan. Along with a high school friend and his dad, we went to Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame induction weekend in 2001. Being there was an amazing experience. The Museum is a bucket list thing for all baseball fans. I’m sure many of you were there too. Based on the number of fans who came from Minnesota I know some of you did.

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Following Puckett’s Hall of Fame induction, things got bad for Puckett. News came out about his personal life that was too terrible to be ignored. There were accusations of domestic abuse. Puckett was shown to be unfaithful to his wife publicly, even though it was clear that Twins media appeared to have some knowledge of it.

More and more information came out, and then there was the Frank Deford article in Sports Illustrated. The cover showed Puckett as a player and also at his current state and had the title, “The Secret Life of Kirby Puckett.”

It was through that even, again in 2001, that I would never place an athlete or anyone else on a pedestal the way that I had done with Puckett. To this day, I 100% respect any athlete’s ability to play the game, but it’s hard to know what’s really going on behind closed doors. It was an important lesson for me, and it should be for others as well.

Respect the player. Respect the way he plays the game and the success that he experiences. Notice and appreciate the work that the players do off the field and in the community. And just leave it at that.

Imagine how Puckett might be judged now had Twitter been around at that time.

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Kirby Puckett was my hero. Getting one of his baseball cards was always a good feeling. Watching him play the game for 12 years in a Twins uniform. If you are anywhere near my age I’m guessing the Kirby Puckett holds a special place in your heart to this day.

Ten years ago today Puckett’s life came to an end. It was a day of great sadness, and a lot of soul searching. Here I am, ten year later, and thinking about Kirby Puckett still brings back great memories. He wasn’t a perfect player, but he was an all-time great. He was a Hall of Famer. He did a lot in the community. He always played hard, and he always had the big smile on his face. He had some big moments, and he led our favorite team to two World Series championships.

  • Cory Engelhardt, Devereaux and Broker like this

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13 Comments

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Cory Engelhardt
Mar 06 2016 08:34 AM
Thank you for sharing.
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Hosken Bombo Disco
Mar 06 2016 10:32 AM
Great reflections.

Setting aside everything else, Kirby was also a guy who collected hits in bunches. There hasn't been anyone in MLB quite like him since. During that 1987 season there was a weekend series in Milwaukee where, over two games, Kirby went 10-11 with 4 home runs.

That was a good read, thanks for sharing.  Plenty of memories came flooding back as I read it. I grew up in Pennsylvania and somehow got hooked on the Twins in 85-86 as a 10-year-old after seeing them play on TV against the Orioles or the Yankees, can't remember which (we were in a part of Central PA that could get both teams' home games) and just really enjoying the way Puck and the rest of those guys played.  Back then, it was a bit more difficult to get Twins merchandise in Pennsylvania but I had a shirt during the 87 Championship run.  1st Twins game I attended was a 1990 game at Baltimore and Puck hit a pair of dingers in that game.  In 91, I threw a huge temper tantrum after they got blown out in Game 5 by the Braves and thought all was lost and that they had screwed up a great opportunity.  As a Penn State football season ticket holder at the time, I went to that game on the day of Game 6 (it was a 3:30 start) and listened to the game on the radio, urging my dad to drive home faster and got inside just in time for the beginning of the top of the 11th.  In 1996, there was so much excitement because of the signing of Molitor and that this was going to be the year that they at least get the WC and get back into the playoffs.  Then Puck gets the glaucoma.  He had his eye treatments at St. Joe's outside Baltimore which was right across the street from where I was going to college at Towson.  Yes, I considered paying a visit...never did.  Later in '96, Puck was being honored in Williamsport at the Little League World Series.  I wore my Puckett jersey and hoped to get him to autograph it.  Instead, I got to shake his hand and he thanked me.  Crap, I'm the one that should have been thanking him...for all of those great moments and excitement he brought me and the fans on the baseball field.  The day I heard the announcement of his passing, I was eating dinner and just dropped my fork and stared off into space for I don't remember how long.

 

It's hard to believe it's been 10 years.  It's hard to believe it's been 20+ since he was dazzling us on the diamond.  I had forgotten that today was the day so I guess it was either a higher power or just plain dumb luck that I wore a Twins golf shirt to work today.  RIP Puck, we'll never forget ya.

    • Kevin and formerly33 like this
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Don Walcott
Mar 06 2016 10:49 AM

I'm a little older, so my first hero was Rod Carew.However, Puck came along.There was never a player who was more fun to watch.Even thinking of him just standing at first chatting up the 1st baseman from the other team makes me smile.And whenever I went to a game, he never disappointed.The first game I ever saw him, he was 4-for-4 with a bunt single.I saw him hit a line drive that seemed to never get above about 6 feet high, then hit the base of the wall in left-center against Dave Stewart.Knocked Stewart out of the game.Same game, he also threw out Rickey Henderson trying to go 1st-to-3rd on a single.I saw his 2000th hit.Whatever else has and can be said about him, I don't think there's ever been another player who brought so much joy to the game -- for his teammates, the fans, even opponents . . . everyone.

    • formerly33 likes this

I started a Tony Oliva fan as a small kid, but when Puckett came up he moved to #1 and no other baseball player has come close since.

 

I used to love the way Puckett talked about being fortunate and understanding hard work. In my memory he used to always be the anti-Rickey, which leads to my favorite Puckett story which I have shared on-line before. I was living in A's territory at the time and watched it on t.v.:

 

Monday, August 19, 1991 (Coffeyville Whirlwind summary)

 

Last game of a four game series at the Dome between the Twins and the Oakland A’s. Twins faced them twice that month. The A’s were only three games back when we played at the Coliseum on August 2. The Twins took two of three.

 

The A’s were 5 games behind when they came to the Metrodome for the long series. They still sounded confident. Why not, they had been to the three previous World Series, and of course they were very juiced.

 

The Dome was packed all four games – 52,080 for the Saturday game. The Twins took the first three games – all come from behind victories. Could the Twins sweep?

 

In the first inning, Kirby hit a solo homer to match Canseco’s. The A’s went up 6-1 in the fourth, but the Twins battled back and tied the game at 7-7 when Hrbek homered in the fifth.

 

That’s when – for me – the fun started. Top of 6th, Rickey Henderson walked and stole second and third. Dave Henderson hit a fly ball into short center field, Rickey Henderson tagged up, and Kirby Puckett nailed Henderson at the plate on a hop.

 

Kirby didn’t just nail Henderson. He made the great Rickey fall on his ass in front of home plate. Never touched it.

 

Bottom of 7 now. Two outs Twins, Kirby hit a single right to Henderson in left field. Kirby went for two! It looked for a moment like Henderson was napping but he fired it to second to barely get Kirby.

 

The difference between the greats: Kirby was poker-faced after he schooled Henderson. When Henderson nipped Kirby, he ran past him braying like a donkey – like they were even, as Tom Kelly said in his book about that season.

 

Those were the moments. As for the game, Steinbach got the game-winning hit when Kirby’s throw to home – which looked accurate – bounced straight up off the mound, allowing Dave Henderson to score. Larkin’s would-be tying home run was about six feet foul in the bottom of the inning.

 

The Twins were 3.5 games in first and 6 games ahead of the A’s after that game. And looking set to win their second world championship.

 

Thanks for the baseball memories, Kirby.

I was too old when Kirby came up for him to be an idol or a hero. And I didn't see him play until 1985 because I was in optometry school out of state in 1984. But by 1987 he was my favorite Twin of all time and therefore my favorite player of all time. And that is still true today.

The story I heard is that he had an eye exam scheduled during the 1995-1996 off-season but he had a cold or something that day and decided to cancel because his vision seemed fine. If he would have kept that appointment his condition would have been detected and treated and he would not have lost any vision.

While he always had a positive outlook in public I have no doubt that he was devastated by being forced to retire before he was ready to do so. And the knowledge that his vision loss was completely preventable had to have made it even worse. We all have our demons and when a person is going through hard times it's easy for those demons to overwhelm. I strongly believe that if he had finished his career in the usual way he wouldn't have had the personal and health problems he encountered later and that he'd still be alive today.

So if you haven't had an eye exam done recently please schedule one soon. Fortunately cases like Kirby's are rare, but we want people to find things out the better way and not find things out the worse way.

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theBOMisthebomb
Mar 06 2016 01:37 PM
The most important thing I teach my children is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Then, how to be law abiding citizens. Then, that Kirby was the greatest Twin and greatest Minnesota sports figure ever.
    • Seth Stohs and puckstopper1 like this
I think the word hero should not be used in sports. There are hero's who are athletes, Roberto Clemente, Joe Delaney and such. Hero's run into burning buildings, they work 3 jobs to provide for there families, they die to protect our freedom. The ordanary finding it in themselves to be extrordanary. With that being said, I am going to contradict myself. Kirby was my hero. I can't exactly explain why, maybe because he never disrespect us, by disrespecting the game, and the joy that he played with. Kirby is my favorite player in any sport,and always will be. I feel very lucky he played in my hometown, only wish we had an old Kirby around, to here what he would have to say.

Puckett was my freaking hero growing up, man, 1991, I was 6 and a half years old, I was about 2 years into my total Twins fandom/obsession. Some of my very first memories are driving up from Nebraska to KC with my family, staying in the Twins hotel (back when you could do that) and watching them play (and meeting a few of the players form time to time) heaven on earth for a 5/6 year old boy growing up loving baseball.

 

in 91, at 6 and a half my Dad got a chance to buy a pair of tickets to game 7 through his brother in law at the time, my Dad spent a good amount of cash on those two tickets, and instead of taking my Mom or a friend, who choose to take me instead (with my Mother's blessing of course). We drove up half way during game 6 to stay at a families friend, I believe it was Sioux Falls. They happened to be Braves fans, I will never forget knowing the Twins just had to/would for sure win the game, after all they needed to win it for me to see them in game 7 live! As we all know, Puck had, what is likely the greatest single game in the history of Minnesota Sports. We celebrated, drove up to Minneapolis the next morning, got to the Dome about 3 hours early and the rest is history. Game 7! Puckett wasn't the hero that game, but it didn't matter. That still goes down as the greatest day of my life up until now.

 

Kirby and the Twins didn't win another world series again (or come close during his era) I finally met him the year he got injured (in that same KC hotel we went to every year....my Dad and Mom met him in an elevator years earlier, but were so star struck to even get out more then a couple words or ask for an autograph) He wasn't playing, I was on the early end of being a teenager, but God Damn if that wasn't one of the coolest moments of my life, meeting my childhood hero/idol.

 

You can't ignore the other side of Kirby that came out after his playing career. I will never forget it, I read the article by Deford online when it came out, it really, really, really hit me hard, my hero suddenly was turned into a sex crazed (looking back this was a stupid angle of his article), adulterer and a Woman beater. This was a tough pill to swallow. I had a tennis tournament that evening and lost 6-0, 6-1 to get bounced in the first round, when I walked off my Dad mentioned that Kirby was on the front page of SI and that I shouldn't read it, of course I already had. It was tough to read it, maybe I was a bit naive at the time (most 17 year olds are I imagine) but that whole thing hit me like a punch to the gut.

 

Now, my thoughts towards Puck are mixed, man, what a joy it was to watch him play, he gave us all a lot of amazing years as Minnesota/Twins fans. But I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little pissed at Puck for not being the great human/hero we all thought he was, maybe that's unfair as all of us are flawed, but still....some of his accusations etc are pretty unforgivable, especially now as I am older. I'm not sure how to feel about this all as a whole, I think we can separate our love for Puck as the player, and Puck the person (especially post playing days)

 

 

Either way, in my experience, and especially in my memories with my pops (we are die hard Twins fans to this day) I must admit that my memories re: Puck involved are a ton more good than bad. I just wish he could have ended up close to as good as a person as a ballplayer. Oh well, that isn't the case and we have to deal with that. I guess what we can do from here on out is not try to make his same mistakes.

 

Anyways, I'm sure that's a long rambling mess above, just good to talk about Puck and how awesome he was, and what we can learn from him.

 

 

    • benchwarmerjim, formerly33 and spinowner like this

Wow, this makes me feel so young. When Puckett died, I was eight years old, didn't know or care who the Twins were (to my credit, I wasn't 100% un-Minnesotan - I was a huge Minnesota Orchestra fan), and consequently had never so much as listened to a Twins game on the radio.

 

My fondest memories (because yeah, even I have them) of Puckett are watching the replays of the '87 and '91 WS over and over and listening to my mom reminisce about the good old days when Puckett, Knoblauch, Gladden, and the likes were The Twins. I'm pretty sure she loved (loves) Puckett more than any other man on the face of the earth, and if I remember correctly, the reason we got to listen to the '06 season was because she was so shook up hearing about Puckett's death.

 

And yeah, she's as old as all you guys claiming to be too old for him to be your hero. As glad as I am that she's not on TD, it might've been nice to have a documented account of her memories.

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Halsey Hall
Mar 07 2016 07:11 AM

I was at the fields that day and it was very, very quiet.

I grew up with Killebrew as my hero.

However, I got to raise my kids with Kirby, as theirs, so he became mine that way thru my kids eyes.

Killebrew is still my number one, but Kirby? Right there with him!

Hard to believe it has been 10 years, but what great memories!

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puckstopper1
Mar 07 2016 12:45 PM

I was a Carew fan growing up, but Kirby certainly stole my heart as well. I remember listening to his first game on the radio while in college and Herb trying to describe that 4 hit game by this new guy. What was Reggie Jackson's comment about Kirby - something like "he's just another slap hitter." Reggie was never very perceptive! The 1987 and 1991 seasons are the best memories for many Minnesota sports fans, and Kirby was right at the center of it. I proudly displayed my Puckett jersey in my cube for about a week after he died. I received many positive responses to that, and many great memories of Kirby.


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