Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Six years

Six years ago today, Kirby Puckett died. Time passes quickly. Though Kirby taught me - and many Minnesotans - the importance in not placing too much stock in athletes as role models, he was still my first hero. It's still sad that he's gone.

I thought I'd repost what I wrote six years ago about his death. To be fair, I wrote this the day before he died, but at the time of this writing, we all knew it was coming.

 My First Hero

Kirby Puckett was an easy player for a kid to relate to. He was short and stout, certainly not shaped like a ballplayer. He always had a big grin on his face. He always found a way to bring home runs back over the fence. And he always swung at everything, no matter where it ended up.

As I grew older, I went from appreciating the way he looked to the way he played. He was more than just a guy who went all-out - he knew how to get the job done, too. From a frozen-rope extra-base hit in the late innings to a perfect throw to home plate to cut off a runner. For a young baseball player, he was everybody you wanted to be.

Then came the playoffs. And more specifically, the World Series games. Game 6, 1987, a record 4 runs. Game 6, 1991 ...

Well, to most baseball fans who were alive then, you can simply mention the phrase "Game 6, 1991," and no other explanation is needed ... You close your eyes, and you see him hanging on the plexiglass panel in left field in the early stages of that game, inspring Sports Illustrated writer Steve Rushin to write that he hung there momentarily like one of those Garfield dolls in car windows. With eyes still closed, you see him pound the hanging curveball over the leftfield fence in the 11th inning, the career-defining hit for Minnesota's greatest sports hero.

Of course, like many of America's beloved sports heros, he had his flaws. We didn't find out about his flaws until after his career, and it was obvious the local sports writers had been hiding this dark side of Kirby all those years, almost as if they were afraid to be the ones to tarnish the legend. Well, the legend got tarnished, all right, and when Minnesotans found out about his secrets, the reaction was a shock comparable to finding out a family member had been living a secret life for years. It was a complete shock.

But it's not the post-career revelations I'll remember about Kirby. When I think of him, I'll always be 10 years old, cheering on my favorite player, the player who, at 5'8", was only a couple inches taller than me.

I'll remember the poster of him in my bedroom, drawing stars in celebration all around the edges after the Twins won the 1987 World Series.

I'll remember Game 6, 1991.

I'll remember watching a televised game that took place in Seattle late one summer night, with just me and my brother watching in the basement, as he took a Randy Johnson fastball with the bases loaded and hit it into the deepest recesses of the Kingdome. On that pitch, he did his trademark bat flip, which he did when he knew he got all of a pitch. Before the camera shot even found the ball my brother's reaction was one I'll always remember: "Oh my dear lord, he hit that ball a mile." And he did.

I'll remember the day I went to my first baseball game outside of Minnesota, in old Milwaukee County Stadium, Twins vs. Brewers on my birthday, and my disappointment when Kirby had that day off. And I'll remember the kids sitting behind me, each looking into one eyepiece of my borrowed binoculars just to catch a glimpse of Kirby in the dugout.

I'll remember the day he announced his retirement, and my mom crying during the live news conference on TV.

And I'll remember going to Dayton's in downtown Minneapolis one winter evening to get his autograph, only to see the line snaking all over the store, knowing there was no way I'd get anywhere close to him. He was only signing autographs for three hours that day, and when we got there - a half-hour before the signing was even to have begun - the line had already been cut off. I didn't get to meet him, but I got close to him, maybe within 100 feet. He was sitting on a chair on an elevated platform, and I can't help but remember it as a throne. Perfectly fitting. To a little boy growing up in Minnesota, Kirby Puckett was an absolute king, the closest thing to royalty I'll ever know.


When I was growing up in Rogers, there was a baseball park right by the railroad tracks. It's not there now, replaced by the fire department. But it used to be the only park in town with fences all around the outfield. On lonely summer days, I'd drag my bat, ball and glove out there, all by myself. I'd step up to the plate against imaginary hurlers from the Oakland A's or the Milwaukee Brewers, lift my leg up high and take a mighty swing, trying to keep my balance to keep up the illusion. When my turn "at bat" was over, I'd take my glove and ball and head to straight away centerfield.

And there, I'd rob home runs, over and over again, until the sun went down.

Just a kid pretending to be his idol, if only for a moment.

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