Regardless of the physique, Puckett put up numbers that would be the envy of any ballplayer. The physique might be useful for knocking over a catcher or breaking up the double play. "That bowling ball" brought endless loud acclamations from fans who filled the Metrodome. Now the Metrodome is being retired into the distant past. I remember all the discussions leading up to the Dome, and its unveiling as a facility so different from its predecessor.
BTW here's a link to the song I wrote about Kirby Puckett, now on YouTube. Listen and enjoy:
The biggest hazard in baseball is getting hit by a pitched ball. September 28, 1995, was a fateful day in Twins world. Puckett, poised aggressively at the plate like always, was hit in the face by a fastball. He expected the pitch to break. It did not. The blow shattered his jaw and put him out for the rest of the season.
When the following spring training came along, he at first hit well. But on March 28 he woke up unable to see out of his right eye. Glaucoma was discovered. Four surgeries followed but the problem could not be corrected. A connection to the hit-by-pitch incident? Puckett "had lost his career to an errant Dennis Martinez pitch," wrote Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports.
That pitch "smashed his jaw and blurred his vision," Passan continued. "Puckett never was the same after the beaning." Passan described the ugly aftermath in the moments following the incident: "Blood pooled on the ground. When Puckett stood a few minutes later, a towel colored crimson by blood covered his mouth." Teammate Chuck Knoblauch commented post-game: "I still can't believe how much he was bleeding."
Knoblauch would be forced out of the game by a psychological issue, when he was playing for the Yankees. Knoblauch could no longer throw the ball to first base. You are truly in a fishbowl playing major league baseball.
The 1987 story of the Twins seemed like a fairy tale. Few expected our team would reach such heights. Even after it was over, there were skeptics. But the historical record shows we were "world champions." We did it.
Sometimes I think Midwestern teams have to do more to convince people. Any team on the East Coast wins accolades for an accomplishment - there's never any asterisk. The elite East Coast media never seem quite convinced we deserve to be No. 1 out here. We did it again in 1991: climbed to the top. That was the Jack Morris year. Puckett was essential in both campaigns.
Puckett broke into the majors in 1984. He batted over .300 for his career, won several Gold Gloves and graced the diamond for ten All-Star Game appearances. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, in 2001. His sheer exuberance was praised. He wore one uniform his whole career. We'll never forget his leaping catch against the wall at the Dome.
Kirby was the youngest of nine children born into poverty in a Chicago housing project. He got four hits in his first major league start. Would that have been good enough to keep Gene Mauch from platooning him, had Mauch still been manager? Mauch was notorious for the approach. I remember Lyman Bostock complaining.
Puckett's best year was 1988 when he batted .356 with 24 home runs, 42 doubles and 121 RBIs. He anchored the No. 3 spot in the Twins' batting order. He looked like a fullback in football. Still I gravitate to my friend's term: "bowling ball."
Kirby employed a leg kick as he prepared to swing. Close your eyes and I'm sure you can re-create it all in your head. Pretend you're waving a "homer hanky" all over again!
Puckett's post-baseball story was sad - he ballooned up to 300-plus pounds. He died in March of 2006 at the age of just 45. A stroke was the cause. He came from a family with a variety of health issues. Two brothers died very young. Glaucoma was part of a circulatory disorder present in Puckett's entire body.
Today, Puckett and Hrbek and the rest of the gang are a chapter that is receding further into the past, just as the Dome itself is. Man, I remember when the Dome was brand new. As if by magic, we wouldn't have to worry at all about uncooperative weather any more.
Fans always get restless and they want something new. So we got Target Field. I have yet to visit there. I'm not sure the Twins can capture my interest anymore. But how I revere those memories. Truth be told, I cherish more the memories of the Killebrew/Oliva team. But what a blast we had in the late 1980s. It makes me want to recite the title of my song: "I Wanna Be Like Kirby Puckett."
Kirby Puckett, RIP.