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.
|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.
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.
Like I said: Go to hell, Deford.
But on to better things. Who could forget this moment?