Kirby Puckett died on Monday, at the ridiculously young age of 45. I wasn't a Twins fan, but I liked Kirby Puckett. Everybody liked Kirby Puckett. He was a ten-time All-Star, won six Gold Gloves, and along with Prince, was one of only two black men to live in Minnesota during the 1980's.
I watched SportsCenter with my dad Monday night, when they reported on Puckett's passing. Tim Kurkijian did the report, and the whole thing seemed kind of lazy. They began with a look at the 1991 World Series, where Puckett hit the game-winning home run in Game 6. Kurkijian asserted that Game Six was when Puckett truly became a clutch player, when the Twins won the championship. He neglected to mention the championship they'd won four years earlier, or that the not-yet-clutch Puckett had hit .357 during that World Series.
Kurkijian decided to focus on something much more important than a world championship. He decided America needed to know that in 1988, Puckett became the first player to collect 234 hits AND drive in 121 runs since since Joe Medwick in 1937. Yes, the prestigious 234/121 Club. ESPN also put together a shot of Puckett singling to center, followed by his teammates applauding on the dugout steps, as if they were celebrating him reaching 234 and 121.
Maybe because I am used to rooting for assholes, I don't really care about whether a player is a jerk off the field. The golden image of Kirby Puckett got tarnished by a series of incidents after his retirement, but for me, it seemed kind of irrelevant to my relationship with Puckett, the ballplayer, especially since he was retired when the bad stuff came out about him. It's not as if I liked Kirby Puckett for his charity work. I liked him because he got lots of hits, ran fast, made crazy catches, and was shaped like a bowling ball.
An exchange between me and Dad:
Dad: Puckett was pretty young to have a stroke. Do you think he was on 'roids?
Me: I don't know. Kirby wasn't exactly a cut dude, Dad.
Other things I remember about Kirby Puckett:
- The way the Twins announcer would do an over-the-top, WWF-style introduction of him before important games, starting with, "Batting third, and playing center field" in a relatively normal voice, and then screaming, "KIRRRRRRRBEEEE PUCKETT!!!!"
- In 1987, the Cardinals beat the Giants in the NLCS, and I was absolutely heartbroken. Though I would learn to hate the Cardinals even more in 1988, after the Will Clark-Jose Oquendo-Ozzie Smith brawl, my distaste for St. Louis made me an unjustifiably rabid fan of the Twins in the subsequent World Series. Looking back, the Twins were probably the worst champs of my lifetime, their triumph based on obnoxious towel-waving and an even more obnoxious home ballpark. But they did not have Willie McGee, Ozzie Smith, Vince Coleman, or Whitey Herzog in their dugout, and for that I loved them.
- One of the reasons I like baseball is that having an unconventional body type is not an impediemnt to success. You don't see this is in other sports. Players under six feet are a novelty in the NBA, while even a semi-retarded Latvian can stay in the league for years provided he's seven feet tall. But some of the greatest baseball players do not look like studs: Greg Maddux, Yogi Berra, Tony Gwynn, Kirk Rueter - they all don't look like what you'd think as "athletes". On a related note, I bet Tony Gwynn will be renewing his gym membership before the end of the week.