March 7, 2006
BASEBALL: Kirby Puckett RIP
Kirby Puckett's early death at age 45, from a stroke, is a melancholy occasion on a number of levels, not least the sense that we only thought we knew Puckett, and now wonder who it is we mourn. Here's what I wrote about Puckett's Hall of Fame candidacy in 2000:
Puckett has all the sympathy factors you could imagine pulling for him, which is why his election won't be close. He rose up from a hard-knocks background. His enthusiasm for the game was unmatched. He overcame a physique that reminded nobody of a professional athlete. Before sudden power explosions became common, he mashed his way to 31 homers after seasons of 0 and 4, a feat so improbable that Bob Costas was forced to stick to a late-May promise to name one of his children after him. He won the World Series twice, with teams nobody expected to win, and was a hero in the postseason. He stayed out of trouble, and almost never missed a game. They loved him in Minnesota; his whole career there was like Fred Lynn's 1975. He helped draw 3 million fans a year to a franchise that people say, just ten years later, can't draw enough to survive. His career ended suddenly, after a season where he drove in 99 runs and hit .314; Bill James was projecting him at the time as having a 27% chance at 3000 hits; when he said goodbye to his playing days, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
Kirby Puckett was and is about all the things that made us love baseball in the first place - not just the happy things like grown men playing a child's game with a child's joy and millionaires taking time out for autographs and smiles for the kiddies, but the hard things like gritting your teeth through the long season, putting in the extra BP and the adjustments to stay constant from year to year, and shutting out the world long enough to hit a game-winning home run in the World Series. He did enough of those things to plant two championship flags in the rafters of the Metrodome, flags which seem less likely today to be revisited than the one Neil Armstrong put on the moon.
At the end of the day, the writers all want to take their children to Cooperstown and say, "that's Kirby Puckett, and he is one of baseball's all-time greats." After running the numbers and finding him, at the least, very close to the line, I have to confess: so do I. I'd vote him IN.
This was, of course, before we learned about Puckett's checkered history with women, behavior ranging from boorish to dark and dangerous. Like Pete Rose, Steve Garvey, Dwight Gooden and others, Puckett was made out to be a truly special human being by the media, when in fact at least a significant part of his life showed him to be precisely the opposite. And as was true of Rose, at least, all the things we were told about Puckett and his virtues were basically true; they just left out some very important additional facts.
The Puckett we saw, we loved, and we had good reasons for that love. Maybe that's not all we should remember, but it's a part we should not forget.
In writing about his feelings about Buck O' Neil being denied entry to the Hall of Fame by the special committee considering candidates from the Negro League era, Jason Whitlock said something that seems applicable here:
He’s no victim today. Twelve historians who never saw him play cannot define Buck O’Neil’s legacy. A selection process that doesn’t take into account the spirit of love that sweeps every baseball stadium Buck graces cannot define Buck O’Neil’s legacy. The games are played to create human joy. Therefore, Buck is the reason we play the game.
"Joy" is as good a description as any of what Kirby projected as he played the game: regardless of what the reality of his psyche was during those years, or after cruel fate stripped his athletic gifts from him and sent him on a spiral of declining health and dark emotion, it was an image that was as positive an impression as any player has ever made during his playing days--an image that was, even in retrospect, something that any parent or coach should point to without hesitation as the *right* way to approach the game to children under their care. Kirby Puckett gave us joy as he played the game, and--to the credit of the keepers of immortality in the baseball writing community--he was honored appropriately for that and for his unquestionable gifts on the field before he left us. It's a shame that Buck O' Neil is apparently to be denied that consideration.
I'm not sure I'm comfortable going on about O'Neill in a Puckett eulogy. But let's leave aside several things about Puckett: He was a sensational player. If you put the first tier of centerfielders as Mantle, Mays, Cobb, Speaker, DiMaggio and maybe Charleson (let's assume he belongs), then a second tier would have Snyder, Griffey Jr., maybe Averill and Puckett. All easy to vote in.
So forget the joy Puckett brought, forget how many kids in Minnesota were named Kirby, forget the loyalty to a team, which did return the favor BTW, Kirby Puckett is in the Hall of Fame because he was a dominant player in an important position, and, along with Jack Morris (who should be there as well), led his team to two rings, and that makes him an easy Cooperstown selection to me.
O'Neill? Don't know enough, but I am rather sure that if he was inducted, he would have been better than many of the players, and certainly first basemen who are there now. Maybe that's not a ringing endorsement, but the man is a living connection to a part of baseball history where less is known than it should be. I know it's a different committee, but one groupd of clods inducted Bottomely and Kelly. O'Neill was probably better than they were, much better then Kelly for sure. So if the Hall is crowded, boot them out, and put Buck in.
But most importantly, Kirby, I didn't know you has a human being, so I can't and won't judge you. But you could play on my team anytime.
A small thing, but worth remembering: Puckett gave Mattingly the nickname "Donnie Baseball". He, as they say, got it.
"This was, of course, before we learned about Puckett's checkered history with women, behavior ranging from boorish to dark and dangerous. Like Pete Rose, Steve Garvey, Dwight Gooden and others, Puckett was made out to be a truly special human being by the media, when in fact at least a significant part of his life showed him to be precisely the opposite."
Being smeared by an ex-wife in a very public divorce, and then accused and acquitted of sexual assault hardly qualifies as "dark and dangerous." Why is it that so many find it easy to believe the worst, without proof -- hell, without much evidence, about public figures?
It's sad of Kirby's passing and he created a lot of wonderful memories and help gave us 2 world series. I saw on the news yesterday a cool painting of Kirby is being made, I also saw the painting, its pretty big, its like he is realy there. It was sure great to watch him play always so excited and giving 100%, thanks Kirby for the memories.
Life Size Painting of Kirby Puckett