Ten Year Anniversary Of Kirby Puckett's Death
Image courtesy of Seth StohsMarch 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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