Listing Puckett's legacy

Listing Puckett's legacy
By Ross Newhan, Special to Yahoo! Sports
March 7, 2006

More on Puckett – Kirby's abrupt ending

We were about to be summoned to the Cooperstown stage on that August afternoon in 2001 when I felt a slap on my back and turned to find Kirby Puckett, his hand outstretched and that characteristic grin lighting his face.

Puckett was about to be inducted into the Hall of Fame and I was about to receive the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, and there he was again.

Even in this makeshift clubhouse on a memorable day of another kind for him, even when it came to picking up a humble baseball writer, he was driving the bus again as he had so often in the Minnesota Twins clubhouse, urging teammates to get on board for the ride.

"I'm proud of you," he said to me, and I smiled in response and thanked him for making all of us hacks look good by filling so many notebooks and providing so many moments so easy to write about.

Puckett died of a stroke Monday at a far too young 45 after being forced to retire at a far too young 34 because of glaucoma.

He was irrepressible, life itself.

The vision of that improbably round, 5-foot-8 body pin-wheeling across center field in the Metrodome, along with his clubhouse exhilaration and exhortations, will share a page in the scrapbook of my mind with that August day in 2001.

Puckett played 12 seasons, collecting 2,304 hits, six Gold Gloves and 10 All-Star selections. He helped revive the Minnesota franchise, leading it to World Series titles in 1987 and 1991 while performing with a zest born of the direction his life had taken after his early years in the toughest of the Chicago projects. From hours of batting practice to hours of competition, Puckett never took what could be construed as a second chance for granted.

Nothing remains as vivid as Game 6 of the great 1991 World Series between the Twins and Atlanta Braves in which Puckett defied gravity while making a leaping catch to deprive Ron Gant of a potential home run in the third inning, then won it with a fist-pumping home run in the 11th to force a Game 7 that featured the historic duel between Jack Morris and John Smoltz. Morris and the Twins ultimately won the deciding game in the 10th, 1-0.

"Puck was just that, Puck," current Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said in a retrospective I wrote after Puckett's premature retirement. "Nobody had greater love for the uniform or the game, and there was never a better teammate. He absolutely lit up the clubhouse."

From the prospective darkness of the projects, Puckett noted how far he had come in his Cooperstown induction speech.

"I want you to remember the guiding principles of my life," he said. "You can be what you want to be. If you believe in yourself and you work hard, anything – and I'm telling you anything – is possible …"

The last years weren't kind.

There were allegations of spousal abuse and adultery as well as embarrassing incidents in public. His marriage dissolved, his relationship with the Twins deteriorated and a waistline he could control while playing expanded dangerously, worrying friends who were aware he had lost several brothers and other relatives to diabetes and heart disease. He moved from Minnesota to the comparative privacy of Arizona, but his Hall of Fame induction turned on the lights again briefly.

"A great day," Puckett said as we shook hands in Cooperstown, later telling the crowd that spilled across the meadow and chanted his name, "I played every game like it was my last. I left my blood, sweat and tears on the field. I'm glad I played that way."

Among others, so were those of us who watched him play that way and who wrote about it. I'm confident I can speak for colleagues in that and in this:

The blood, sweat and tears translated to a joy that is Puck's legacy.

Ross Newhan, the longtime national baseball writer for the Los Angeles Times, has covered Major League Baseball for more than 40 years.

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Updated on Wednesday, Mar 8, 2006 12:50 pm, EST

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