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ISSUE 119 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/17/2006

Puckett's death breaks hearts

By Stephanie Soucheray
Variety Editor

Friday, March 17, 2006

It is fitting that news of Kirby Puckett's death reached Minnesota in the twilight of one of the first warm, wet-aired, muddy field days of March. Puckett, our state's adopted son of baseball, all teeth and cheeks and swift bat, passed away only weeks before his 46th birthday.

It was a surreal experience for any Minnesotan or baseball fan. Although Puckett retired from baseball one decade ago due to glaucoma in his right eye, the memory of his play, his swing, and his powder keg body never lived in nostalgia.

Rather, like any legend, his shadow cut through the shopping mall glare of the Metrodome at every game, every playoff, every homerun hit in his absence. His presence became not that of a retired hero, but of what he actually was, a player permanently moved to the disabled list.

Puckett was brought up a skinny, singles-only hitter from the south side of Chicago, whose family died young and tragically. But Puckett was hungry, and in early games for the Minnesota Twins, the only team for which he ever played, his hunger transformed his bat into a mile-long whip.

He was a thrasher at the plate, swinging for balls in the dirt, out of the box, above his head. He was what pitchers called a "hard out," and his entire career was marked by a bat speed that left mounds stunned.

Puckett grew as a player for the Twins, becoming the godfather and jokester of the team, and by their 1987 World Series victory, Puckett had grown physically, with bulging, Popeye forearms. He was a homerun hitter now, the heart and prayer every baseball team needs.

In the years between the 1987 World Series title and the 1991 World Series victory, the Twins became a baseball dynasty. It was Puckett who turned the dynasty into an empire, and he did so in one wild Saturday night five days before Halloween in 1991.

There has been such an outpouring of grief among Minnesotans in the last few weeks after Puckett's death, such a catharsis, because Puckett’s performance in Game Six of the 1991 World Series against the BBQ-glazed Atlanta Braves stands as our only true moment of baseball glory.

In both their World Series performances, it is notable that the Twins lost all away games. But at home, they were something and never more something – something of majesty and mythos than in Game Six, inning five. Puckett stood in center field, and as Ron Gant of the Braves hit what should have been a homerun, Puckett grew winged cleats and reeled towards the glass of Section 102, arms suddenly long, body suddenly light and air born. He caught the ball.

That catch was the Twins’ something, it was our Carlton Fisk waving the ball fair, our Bobby Thompson winning the Giants a pennant, and it was Kirby Puckett’s catch. It was beauty.

What was even more beautiful was Puckett's game-winning homerun in the 11th inning. In the 11th inning in the 11th hour, Puckett swung his bat and won Game Six, admitting Twins’ announcer Jack Buck's declaration of, "Annnnd we'll see ya tomorrow night!" into the American sports lexicon. Puckett handed his team a Game Seven and they showed their appreciation by winning another World Series title.

The great ones are the jealous lovers of the game. They are bitter when their eyes cloud and they can no longer see a curve ball. They can never get over the way the game held them, made them the best person they could be.

Puckett died of a rare stroke in Arizona on March 7. Kirby died too young, and as much as it was from an unholy flow of the blood, it was from heartbreak.

A failed marriage, dangerous weight gain and acquitted molestation charges defined his decade away from the game, but none of these things were what really destroyed Puckett. Without the sport to remind him how great he was, Puckett lost himself.

Puckett is gone, and a part of our beating, red-stitched heart is gone with him. When he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001, the black and white facts of his talent were stunning. No player reached 2,000 major league hits faster than Puckett. He won two World Series titles in less than five years.

He did all this in a short career in baseball standards, only 12 years, and with one team. Puckett said he wanted to play until he was 40, and if he had, he would have stayed with the Twins. He would have always been a clean-up homerun man, batting fourth, still the picture of unlikely speed and strength. He would have been great.

The day after Puckett died, I went to breakfast in Stav Hall. It was 7:30 in the morning, and as the light streamed into our pale Viking ship, I was pleased to see silent papers turned to the Kirby Puckett tribute section, to see some students in Twins jerseys and the number 34. None of us were older than eight in 1991, but those who genuinely touch us can do so at any age. As the sport held Puckett, Puckett held baseball’s fans in Minnesota, and he always held us tightly.

Opinions Editor Stephanie Soucheray is a junior from St. Paul, Minn. She majors in English and in history with a concentration in media studies.

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