COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – He brought joy to nearly everyone he met, playing a little kid’s game with a little kid’s enthusiasm – even when he was the highest paid player in baseball.
Fifty-two years ago this week, Kirby Puckett entered the world. And though he left much too soon, his impact on the game and those who played with and against him endures – on the diamond and in Cooperstown.
“I’ve never seen anybody who loved to play the game, who loved to work at the game, more than Kirby Puckett,” said former Minnesota Twins teammate Randy Bush.Born March 14, 1960, in Chicago, Puckett was raised in the city’s housing projects and played baseball for Calumet High School. He attended Bradley University and starred on its baseball team before being taken with the third overall pick in the January 1982 Major League Baseball amateur draft by the Twins. Two years later, Puckett was the team’s starting centerfielder.Despite his squatty 5-foot-8 build, Puckett immediately showed the ability to hit for average and to run. But after hitting just four home runs in his first two seasons combined, Puckett blasted 31 long balls in 1986. The same year, he was named to the first of 10 American League All-Star Games and won the first of six Gold Glove Awards in center field.“We used to have meetings and they’d ask me: ‘How do you pitch Kirby,’” said former Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston. “I said: ‘You tell me.’”In 1987, Puckett led the AL with 207 hits – the first of three times leading the league in that category – and powered the Twins to the first World Series championship, hitting .357 against the Cardinals in that seven-game Fall Classic. Two years later, Puckett won the AL batting crown.Then in 1991, Puckett brought the Twins back to World Series – this time against the Braves. Down 3-games-to-2 and heading back to Minneapolis for Game 6, Puckett told his teammates he would carry them to Game 7.“’Hop on, boys.’ That was his favorite line,” said former Twins player Jacque Jones. “Every day he would put the whole team on his back.”In that Game 6, Puckett drove in his team’s first run with a first-inning triple, then robbed the Braves’ Ron Gant of an extra-base hit in the third inning with a leaping catch at the center field wall. Then, with the game tied at 3 in the bottom of the 11th, Puckett homered to give the Twins the victory.The next night, Jack Morris pitched Minnesota to the championship – with Puckett’s third walk of the game coming during the 10th-inning rally that resulted in the Twins’ 1-0 win.Puckett played four more seasons, leading the AL in hits again in 1992 and pacing the league with 112 RBI in just 108 games during the strike-shortened 1994 season. But on March 28, 1996, Puckett awoke at Spring Training and had no vision in his right eye.He was diagnosed with glaucoma, which led to his retirement on July 12, 1996 at just 36 years old.“He made the whole organization better – how good and solid he was in every aspect of the game,” said former Twins star Tony Oliva.Puckett was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year eligible in 2001. He finished his career with a .318 batting average, 2,304 hits, 207 home runs and 1,085 RBI in just 12 big league seasons.Puckett suffered a stroke on March 5, 2006, and passed away a day later at the age of 45.
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum