Friday, March 10, 2006

Baseball Has Lost A Good One: Remembering Kirby Puckett

Who was Kirby Puckett? He was a hitting machine for Minnesota, as everyone knows. Everyone remembers perhaps the greatest game by ANY major leaguer in the 1991 World Series where he single-handedly beat the Braves in game 6, with a game saving catch, and a dinger to win it in extra frames. Everyone remembers the roly-poly outfielder, always with a smile on his face, staying true to the hometown Minnesota fans. Puckett was all that. But there was a bunch more to the guy. He loved the game, and I found that out one summer afternoon in downtown Cleveland.

It was the dog days of summer in 1990. It was a good summer…a great summer even. I was a kid about to start college, spending the summer landscaping during the day, and watching my favorite baseball team, live and in person, at night. I LIVED baseball back in those days. I was had just started a college baseball career, and I lived and breathed the game. Sure, I was an Indians fan, but you couldn’t win them all. The Indians weren't horrid, but they weren't great either. They had bit players, Alex Cole, Candy Maldanado and a young Sandy Alomar Jr., and just weren't built to win...so be it. Besides, it wasn’t necessarily about the winning and the losing. It was more about the day-to-day struggle. And it was everything I wanted it to be that year.

Anyways, I didn’t have season tickets that year, or any tickets for that matter. A couple of buddies and I would head out to Municipal Stadium, and Downtown Cleveland searching for tickets (or a mugging, which at the time, wasn’t to far off the truth). I’m not going to get into THAT part of my story here, but suffice it to say that bumping in to a major leaguer here and there wasn’t nearly out of the question. Okay, I met exactly two outside of the stadium, but that’s where my story starts on a fateful August day.

I found myself staring face to face with Kent Hrbek and Kirby Puckett strolling downtown Cleveland. I'm not sure if they had an off day the day before or not, but they were walking to the park after perhaps catching dinner. Not very smart walking in downtown Cleveland at the time (remember, the Jake wasn't there yet, and the walk from something, to Municipal wasn't exactly a cakewalk, but of course, Hrbek and Puckett weren't exactly tiny either) Both were staring out me, and they had that look, you know, of a couple of gang members who bump into someone from a rival gang. I’m sitting there, dressed in Indians garb from head to toe, with the two mighty twins directly in front of me, wearing khakis and polos. And they weren’t looking all that happy at all. As stupid as it sounds now, the thought of running crossed my mind. They looked that pissed. They could see it on my face, both took a step forward, and when I stuttered backwards, both started laughing hysterically. Lost in confusion, I muttered the only thing I could…

“What the hell is so funny?”

“Well, the fact that it looked like you were about to wet your pants for one.” Hrbek said to me, not even close to trying to hide his giggling.

“Yo Herbie, lay off the kid…” Puckett said to him, although his laughing had yet to subside, “Your mother was afraid of you when you were born, so why WOULND’T HE be afraid?” Puckett started laughing uncontrollably at that point. The fact that Hrbek stopped focusing on me, and focused on his teammate made me laugh as well.

“Your one to talk,” said Hrbek sarcastically. “Your Mom PRAYED for Rumplestitskin to show up to take you, until she realized YOU WERE Rumplestiltskin!” Both started roaring at this point, and I couldn’t help but laugh watching these two superstars shredding each other 2 feet away.

“Rumplestiltskin? You make over a million dollars, and that’s ALL YOU can come up with? Rumplestiltskin? No doubt, when your Mom finally got used to your ugliness, she then had to deal with the years and years of dumb!” Puckett rolled out to Hrbek. Hrbek at this point, still laughing, started chasing Puckett around in circles. Here is the 18 year old kid watching two major leaguers chase each other around like, well, 18 year olds. After about a minute of this, Puckett got Hrbek to cool down, and both walked back over to me.

“An Indians fan huh? Good that you stick with your team. Goin’ to the game tonight?” Puckett said to me.

“Uh, yeah, just got tickets a couple of minutes ago,” I said the Kirby, still not quite taking in the fact that I was standing in front of two of the best players in the game, and not realizing that saying NO, I DON’T HAVE TICKETS, might have gotten me choice seats.

Hrbek crowed in, “Well, at least he’s not going to hit us up for tickets!” he said laughing.

Kirby asked me if I was from Cleveland (yes), if I played any ball in my days (yeah), if I went to many games (yep), if I was really a Twins fan (no), If I would ever be a Twins fan (no), or if I might at least be a Puckett fan (sure…but never a Twins fan, sorry). He chuckled again, and Hrbek started looking a bit antsy. No, there wasn’t anyone else around, but you know how that gets. First there’s one fan, then 1,000 looking for autographs. I told him my name, for some moronic reason, and threw off an idiotic smile that said, “MORON!”

“Well, we kinda have to get to the ballpark, you know, with the game and all,” said Puckett with a smile on his face.

“Man, my friends are never going to believe this,” I said half to Puckett and Hrbek, half to myself.

“I’ll tell you what,” Kirby said. “You come down by the dugout before the game starts, and bring your friends. I’ll be looking for you.”

At this point, I more or less figured this was another star’s way of getting rid of a fan looking to meet another star, but I humored him. “Sure, what are you going to do, act like you’re my buddy?”

“Just come on down and give me a holler. And hey, thanks for supporting your team. Its fans like you that keep the game going.” Puckett said, while Hrbek was more or less pulling him away. Sounds incredibly hokey to say the least, but he actually said that. And as he walked away, he simply said, “See you at the game.”

Sure enough, I meet my friends at Gate D as I always did, and we all had extra tickets by that point. So we handed out the spares to a few people looking for tickets, and went into the park. I hadn’t mentioned anything to my friends about the meeting, hoping upon all belief that Kirby would somehow remember that some punk kid had met him walking around downtown Cleveland. Not really believing it for a second, but I was hoping. And this would make a classic story.

We walked through the lower deck aisle out into Municipal, and it was always like walking into something better. It was a sunny afternoon, and the Twins were out on the field taking their swings, and throwing the ball around. So I made my move. We usually went out to the left field bleachers, hoping to catch a few fungos, but I focused them on something different.

“Hey, let’s see if we can’t get a few autographs today. I know a few guys on the Twins.” This brought explosive laughter from my friends, but they humored me. So down to the Twins dugout we went. As always, fans pretty much had the rule of the roost at the old stadium, and we weren’t hassled to much standing by the rail on the Twins side. As long as it was far enough before gametime, and we weren’t standing in front of anyone in the front row, you could pretty much stand anywhere. Puckett was standing in the outfield playing long toss, and shagging flies, then went into some windsprints. I kept standing there, waiting, and getting ribbed for “name-dropping” that I knew someone in the Twins organization. Even I thought it sounded idiotic, but I wasn’t moving from that rail until Puckett walked by and either acknowledged me, or didn’t. I was just planning on playing it off (and still kicking myself in the ass for not getting an autograph from Puckett or Hrbek as proof to the meeting either way).

Finally it happened. Puckett was walking in. Sure enough, he walked directly past us, as by that point, a bunch of “fans” began crowding, shouting Kirby. He did look over, directly at me, and ran into the dugout. At that point, I was like, “Okay, let’s get out of here.”

We literally made the turn to leave, and I hear Puckett yelling behind me. “Hey KID, come over here a second.” I turn around, expecting it to be someone else yelling to a bat boy or something, and see Puckett standing at the rail by the dugout, ignoring everyone else there, and pointing at me with a bat. I smiled (for the first time that day with a bit of swagger), looked over at my friends and said, “Hey, you wanna meet Kirby Puckett?”

My best friend, B-, said, “Yeah right, no way he’s pointing to you…jackass” as I walked right back down. I got next to him, and he said, “and your friends too.” They all hesitantly walked down to me like they were in some sort of hazy pile of quicksand.

“Yo, I just wanted to take care of my friend here, and handed me the bat. He grabbed a sharpie from a guy standing next to me and signed it. To ---, thanks for being a fan, enjoy the game, Kirby. I was literally dumbstruck. A FREAKIN’ BAT SIGNED BY KIRBY FREAKIN’ PUCKETT! I fluttered out a mumbled thanks, and continued to stare at the bat, as my friends were struggling around trying to check out what he wrote. Kirby backed up, and waved up someone, and out came some guy in a suit with a bunch of fitted Twins hats. There were 4 there, but only three of us. So he signed three of the hats, and gave them two us, then grabbed the last hat. He looked up at me, wrote something on the bill of the hat, handed it to me, winked, and said, “Enjoy the game gentlemen. And ---, next time we’re in town, make sure you stop and say hi.” At that point, he was in the dugout and gone.

Bedlam ensued. He signed nothing else to anyone, so about 100 people surrounded me, hounding me to see the bat. I just wanted out of there, enjoying my moment in the sun with the great Kirby Puckett. Finally, the 90 year old ushers started kicking people out, and we got out of there, walked over to first base side where we were sitting. I’ve already got my glove on (gotta take the glove to the game), am holding a bat, and 2 Twins hats.

I sat down with my friends, and told them about the day that ACTUALLY happened in the lead up to the autograph session. After many pats on the back, and questions from the not so many surrounding fans (it was Cleveland in 1989 after all), I took a look at the 2nd hat that Puckett had signed for me. I smiled, took my Indian hat off, and for the first and only time, wore an opposing team’s hat at a professional ballpark. It said, “To the Newest Twins fan—Kirby” And you know what? For one game? I was.

The Twins won that game. The Twins were up 5-0 before the Tribe stormed back before losing 5-4. Puckett had a great game...was on base 2 or 3 times, and even stole a base. Hrbek went off, with 2 dingers. Don't remember much else about the game, but chuckled to myself as the two guys that I had chatted with earlier in the day apparently made it their goal in life to turn an Indian fan into a Twin fan. At least that's what I've always convinced myself. Call it POJO's version of the Babe Ruth called shot. Not a chance that it's true, but what the hell, you don't meet greatness all that much in life.

I’ve been a Puckett fan ever since. Never a Twins fan, but for the second time (I’m a Rod Carew fan, and always will be—but that’s for another story) in my life, actually found myself rooting for another team (if the Indians weren’t playing that is), and a Player that didn’t wear the Wahoo. I still have the bat, and the hats, and for the first time since that summer, wore hat #2 (it was too big then, but it actually fits now…funny…probably something about getting smarter…head getting bigger…or something like that).

Now, Kirby’s gone…died far too early from a stroke, and I find myself thinking back over 15 years ago, to a guy that loved EVERYTHING about the game…even a shy kid, rooting for the opposing team. The irony of it all, is that his last game was played against the Indians, when El Presidente clocked him in the eye, more than likely causing the glaucoma that ended his career. I despised Dennis Martinez (justly or not) ever since then, until I found out how much it affected HIS career. Kirby Puckett was a great ballplayer, a hall of famer without a doubt. More than that, he cared about the game, and the fans that attended it. He was loyal to a city that needed someone to be loyal (would there even BE a team in Minnesota without Puckett???? NO!!!). And he was loyal to the fans that not only supported the Twins, but the game he loved.

In a brief story about one of the greatest games that I've ever seen, Kirby Puckett and Chili Davis were talking in the dugout before their 11th inning at bats. Puckett already had 3 hits, and had a hand in all 3 Twins runs. The Twins were down 3 games to 2, and tied up in a potential elimination game against the Braves. Earlier that day, Puckett held an impromptu meeting before the game stating that the team should jump on his back, he was going to carry them that day. In the first inning, he gave the team the sign that his speech was true, by slapping a triple, driving in a run, then scoring a run himself. Then came one of those memories you just never forget. Ron Gant blasted a shot to deep left-center...and Puckett, all 5'8" of him, scaled the 13 foot wall, and made a catch that probably nobody else could have made in that park. He robbed Gant of a potential dinger, and assuredly, extra base hits. It was a catch for the ages. The game was tied 2-2 in the fifth, when Kirby's sac fly gave the Twins the lead again with a sac fly (that's right, 3 runs, all to do with Kirby). The Braves later tied the game, and into the 11th inning the game went. Anyways, as the story goes, Kirby told Chili Davis that he could bunt. They'd be playing him back, and he could get on base with a bunt, and be able to work his way around for a score during Chili's at bat. "You can drive me home," Puckett said to Davis. Davis famously replied, "Are you crazy! SWING AWAY!" Puckett led the inning off with the game winning homer, and the Twins went on to win perhaps the greatest series in modern day history...a 7 game series...5 1 run games...3 extra inning games...Twins up 2-0...Braves win 3 in a row, up 3-2...only to have the Twins win the last two. Swing away Kirby, indeed.

Baseball lost a true spokesperson this week, and an ambassador, and a player that I will never, ever forget, Kirby during the good timesfor allowing me to believe there’s actually GREAT players that actually pay attention to what’s important to the game. No, Kirby wasn’t the perfect human being, none of us are, but perhaps that’s what made him so great, and so loved in and around the game. Baseball is a lesser game today than it was a week ago. Thanks Kirby, for everything.

2 comments:

  1. Dave's PA RentalMarch 11, 2006 at 9:33 PM

    Great story Poj...I was a Kirby Puckett fan as well...

    ReplyDelete
  2. He's a hard guy not to like...

    there's a great story in Sports Illustrated by Steve Rushin, about Puckett. He does the early commentary in the mag...always the first thing I read.

    He's from Minnesota, and has been a fan since birth.

    Sad, sad story...

    ReplyDelete