Tuesday, October 26, 2010

October 26, 1991: Kirby

MINNEAPOLIS - Hall of Fame careers can be made through a variety of ways. Most often, there's no question a player belongs, simply because of the length and quality of his career. Other times, a player gets there through a handful of transcendant seasons, a short but brilliant body of work. These are players like Dizzy Dean, Sandy Koufax, George Sisler, and Hack Wilson. Other times, a player can get in primarily through his body of work in the postseason, where his sense of the dramatic is unparalleled. These are players like Bob Gibson, Bill Mazeroski, and Brooks Robinson.

Especially rare, though, is the player who makes the Hall of Fame because of one game, one special day when he was the best player on the field, when he came through for his teammates when they absolutely needed him to do so.

Kirby Puckett was already recognized as one of the game's best players in 1991. He had gone to multiple All Star Games and won multiple Gold Gloves and had developed a reputation as a popular, talented, clutch player. Though he started to slip a little bit in 1991, he was still considered dangerous when that year's World Series began, having just won the ALCS MVP award. He batted .308 through the first five games of the World Series, but still the Twins came home trailing 3-games-to-2 in the series.

Then Game 6 happened.

Puckett walked into the Twins clubhouse before game 6 and told his team to jump on his back, that he would be carrying them that night. Having just lost three straight games on the road, the Twins needed the emotional boost. Then, Puckett hit a run-scoring triple in his first at bat, later coming home to score to give the Twins a 2-0 lead. Most baseball players would be satisfied with that - boast to your teammates that you'll come through, then do exactly that in the first inning. But Puckett wasn't done. Not by a long shot.

There was a runner on first with one out in the third when Ron Gant lifted a deep flyball to left center field. Puckett, always adept at bringing back home runs, tracked the ball the whole way, leapt up, braced himself against the plexiglass wall, and made the catch, robbing Gant of a sure double and keeping the runner at first. It was the most incredible catch in a career full of them.

As the game went along, the scoreboard still read 2-0 Twins, but in reality, the score was Puckett 3, Atlanta 0, owing to the run Puckett saved defensively. Atlanta's Terry Pendleton didn't care too much about reality, though, when he hit a ball to deep left-center in the fifth that even Puckett couldn't catch, tying the game. So, then, Puckett had to act again, and he came through again, driving home a run in the bottom of the fifth with a sacrifice fly. Minnesota had the lead again.

Atlanta tied it up again, and despite Puckett's presence - and despite his single and stolen base in the eighth - the game went into extra innings. Not much happened in the 10th and 11th, which seems fitting. It's almost as if the Twins and Braves were waiting around for Puckett to deliver an encore.

Puckett was scheduled to lead off the bottom of the 11th. As he waited in the on-deck circle between innings, he turned to Chili Davis: "What do you say, Chili? I think I'm going to lay down a bunt right here." Davis looked at Puckett like he had grown a second head. Then he offered his explicit opinion of Puckett's plan to bunt. Then he told Puckett to get a hanging changeup and hit the ball out of the ballpark.

As Puckett stood in the batter's box, after everything he had promised and delivered on that day, the result of his at bat seemed pre-ordained. The first three pitches were just filler, time-wasters to prevent the story from finishing. Then he got that hanging changeup that Davis had told him to look for, and he kicked his leg high, and he swung.

And as Kirby Puckett rounded first base, pumping his fist and screaming in delight, and as Jack Buck was telling the television audience that "we'll see you tomorrow night," and as Minnesota fans cheered louder and longer for their hero than they ever had before, and as his teammates greeted him first with high fives and then with heartfelt embraces, Puckett became more than just an immortal Minnesota legend. In that moment, in that one swing, he became a Hall of Famer.

No comments:

Post a Comment