March 28, 2014

Remembering the Twins’ Kirby Puckett

Kirby Puckett, who patrolled center field and played his entire 12-year career for the Minnesota Twins, would have been 54 this month. His birthday was March 14.

But Puckett, a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2001, died in 2006 at the much-too-young age of 45 from a stroke. His life following the game was tragic, a stark contrast to the player who routinely was described as one of the bright spots in the game, both on and off the field.

Photo by Rolf Boone

That’s probably why the Baseball Writers Association of America wasted no time in voting Puckett into the Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility in 2001. Puckett won 82 percent of the vote that year and suddenly found himself in Cooperstown.

He finished with a career batting average of .318 and more than 2,300 hits. In 1988, Puckett absolutely mashed, hitting .356 with 24 home runs and 121 runs batted in. He also had 234 hits, including 42 doubles.

That’s hitting, people.

Puckett was certainly well on his way to 3,000 hits before pitcher Dennis Martinez hit him in the face with a fastball on Sept. 28, 1995.

That’s doubly painful because Sept. 28 is my birthday. His career effectively ended that day.

Puckett would go on to play in spring training games the following season, but he also developed vision problems in one eye and eventually was diagnosed with glaucoma. Surgeries couldn’t correct the problem, so Puckett retired from the game at 36 with career earnings of $43.2 million.

One quick aside: Go to hell, Frank Deford.

I am a longtime Twins fan who has never set foot in Minnesota.

In fact, I became a Twins fan on a bet, a friend in the 7th grade daring me to pick any team in the old American League West and make them my favorite. He boasted that his California Angels would win a World Series before any team I picked, so I went ahead and chose the Twins, knowing nothing about the team. I soon learned they lost more than 100 games in 1982.

It would be years before I reconnected with that old friend, but by then I had long won the bet. Not only did the Twins win a World Series, they won two before the Angels would win their first in 2002.

Meanwhile, I remained a loyal Twins fan. I looked up the team’s box score every morning in the paper and my father took me to see them play whenever they made their West Coast swing through Seattle to play the lowly Mariners. Except, of course, they could never beat the M’s on the road.

Portland, Ore., my hometown, also was home to the Portland Beavers, for years the AAA affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Phillies and Twins during the 1980s.

The Twins would play exhibition games against the Beavers in Civic Stadium and I’ll never forget watching Puckett play center field. In one game, the Beavers tried to challenge the Twins by scoring runners from second and third on a sharp hit to Puckett.

But he would have none of it, rifling a throw to home plate so fast — and in the process demonstrating the huge difference between a major league arm and a minor league arm — that he sent both runners scurrying back to their bases.

Following Puckett’s departure from the game, another image of Puckett would emerge, one that included allegations of infidelity. And it was that contrast — the exuberant player on the field, the alleged troubles off it — that led sportswriter Frank Deford to write, “The Rise and Fall of Kirby Puckett.”

You know where adultery ranks in the history of male professional athletes behaving badly?

Right at the bottom. It’s about as insignificant as the gnat I just crushed between my index finger and thumb, especially when you consider some of the true rogues that sports has given us.

Take, for example, Rae Carruth, a former football player for the Carolina Panthers. From Wikipedia:

In 2001, he (Carruth) was found guilty of conspiring to murder the woman who at the time was carrying his child and is serving a prison sentence with an expected release date of 2018.

Or former football player Darren Sharper. From the L.A. Times:

A Los Angeles judge Monday again ordered ex-NFL star Darren Sharper to remain in jail without bail amid ongoing sexual assault investigations in five states.

Five states?

Like I said: Go to hell, Deford.

But on to better things. Who could forget this moment?

–Rolf Boone

COMMENTS

Hi, I’m Rolf Boone and I love the Twins.

I became a fan of the Minnesota Twins after a friendly wager in the early 1980s. I survived Ron Davis, the meltdown in Cleveland, Phil Bradley at the Kingdome and then marveled at a rising generation of stars and two World Series wins in 1987 and 1991. Brad Radke made the 1990s bearable, while Kirby Puckett’s eye injury, exit from the game and eventual death made it almost too much to bear. The new century ushered in more talent — Joe Mauer, Johan Santana, Joe Nathan, Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau — and consecutive seasons of playoff baseball, followed by consecutive seasons of losing baseball. A winning season returned in 2015. So here we are. Go Twins.