I walked to the chain link fence where the crowd was starting to gather and I immediately started looking for the numbers “34” everywhere I could. I could see Dave Winfield, Chuck Knoblauch, Paul Molitor, Rick Aguilera, but no 34. I glanced over behind some player and--whoa, and there he was. Kirby Puckett, the 5’8” 210 pound man wasn’t the DH or the first basemen, he was actually the center fielder.
My parents took me to Ft. Myers to see the Twins spring training in '96 and I wanted to be sure to see my favorite player. It seems even more special to know I was one of the few people to see him practice for it was one week later that he woke up with glaucoma and his career suddenly ended.
Everyone was drawn to him. He was the reason why the hall of famers, Winfield and Molitor, came to the Twins that off-season and he had an energy that everyone gravitated towards. The team was running laps throughout the outfield and as others were stone faced and working on training, Puckett had a smile on his face and would spread the smiles on to everyone else especially the young ones like Jacque Jones and a young Torii Hunter.
Later on in the day after the practices there were hundreds of people waiting for an autograph. It wasn’t everyday where you could get a 10 time all star, 6 time gold glover, 6 time silver slugger award winner, and a player that had the most hits of anyone to ever play the game in his first 5 seasons, to sign a pennant and sure enough all those fans were waiting in line for Puckett to come around and sign their items.
I thought there would be no way for any major leaguer to make their way through a couple hundred fans but I waited in line anyway.
As I waited I remembered watching all those all star games just to see Kirby don the Twins jersey as he ran out to Center field. I always looked forward to the ovation this odd shaped man received as he tipped his cap to the crowd of general baseball fans (not just Twins fans). I also vividly remember the ‘93 all star game in Camden yards where Puckett hit a homerun and a double to win the MVP for the American League.
I was 13 and I sat on my living room floor and watched that game and many others with smile ear-to-ear.
A half hour passed and he kept making his way through the line and out all the signings he would actually ask the fans questions and thank them for their support.
“He’s thanking them?!” and it looked like he may actually sign my pennant. As I waited longer, I couldn’t help but remind myself of game 6 of the 1991 World Series and how this 5’8 character made his way around the outfield and robbed Ron Gant of a for-sure game leading double. Later in that game he hit a triple and finally, hit the most famous home run I have ever seen off of Charlie Leibrant to pave the way for one of the best pitching performances in baseball history in game 7 and thus win the World Series.
Another five minutes and I start to look on at Puckett, now 20ft ahead of me, and everything seems surreal. I’m about to go face-to-face with the guy us kids would try to imitate in T-ball with the leg kick and home run robbing catches. I remember the day receiving our jersey numbers in little league and the kid with “34” would become something like “the chosen one” and everyone would be envious.
Of course I put a little distance in the whole “idol” thing because my dad is actually the guy I hope I can just be a shadow of, but Puckett…Puckett was the guy I thoroughly respected and was proud to see everyday. Puckett was the player that was the reason I loved this game and loved everything about this game. I knew, even at that time, how much of a privilege it was just to have the opportunity to see this man play 81 times a year.
As I waited in line I also remember the last at-bat he had in ‘95 when Dennis Martinez beaned the guy in the head. Puckett fell to the turf and the Cleveland Indians players were all immediately concerned. Sandy Alomar pulled up his mask and started fighting off tears as he watched one of the true ambassadors of the greatest game ever spitting blood outside of home plate. The press conference to follow there was Martinez sitting 2nd row center in tears for he may have ended a baseball legend’s career.
Puckett being the true humanitarian he was, publicly asked his fans and media to not single out Martinez because he didn’t intentionally hit him and was only “playing the game”.
Just more class coming from 34.
Interestingly enough, the inning after Puckett was beaned, the same thing happened in retaliation to Albert Belle. Belle said that he would’ve charged the mound had it not been Puckett that got hit.
After he signed hat of the fan in front of me I remember being within two feet of him when he asked me how I was. Even after an hour of signing miscellaneous items and trying to weed out the entrepreneurs, he still greeted me like I was a friend of the family. He signed my pennant and it was as if the pennant was now gold.
Last night after it was announced that Puckett suffered a stroke there were many people on the Twins message board waiting for any new news. Online was the star tribune editor and a other twins fans patiently waiting for something, anything. It was almost as it the entire state of Minnesota was in the waiting room to hear any sort of news. Suddenly spring training ‘06 didn’t matter, the world baseball classic didn’t matter, and nearly all news was faded in the background as 34 was in serious condition. People mentioned how they were afraid to wake up to even more bad news.
For me, last night was hard. As much as I tried to tell myself how silly it was to shed tears over a baseball player, I just couldn’t help it. Saying Kirby Puckett was just a baseball player is like saying Lance Armstrong is just a guy who rides a bicycle or that Pink Floyd was just a band that flicks strings.
Later on in the day I heard how he was in critical condition, I struggled.
Later on I found out he was given his last rights, I could barely stop the all out bawling.
Then I found out he passed and… now I just want to go bed.
The only similarity I can come up with is a crude one. Back in 1986 my favorite cartoon, The Transformers, came out with a movie. This was the first movie I was ecstatic to see and me and my brother begged our parents to take us to this movie. It was the chance to see Optimus Prime, the strong and mighty Autobot leader, on the big screen and all the other favorite characters. I came in the theatre and time slowed down as I waited for the main feature. The movie started and came the huge battle between Optimus and Megatron. They fought and I watched with excitement for I had seen them fight many times before. One thing was wrong though, Optimus was showing sure signs of damage and the fight continued on.
“BAM, CRACK,” they went back and forth until it was over and the next scene was Optimus in a hospital (of some sort) with some sort of a monitor to represent life next to him.
I didn’t actually think anything would happen so I continued watching. The characters said their goodbyes as the red and blue Optimus’ color disappeared to black and white as his head limped to his side. He was dead and it hit me like a ton of bricks. The Autobot leader died and I was supposed to watch the rest of the movie? I sat and cried in that theatre as my parents looked at each other like ‘what kind of a cartoon has death?’ I walked out of the theatre stunned and heartbroken.
I guess that’s the way I feel now. The 5’8” centerfielder is now dead at 45. It’s not because of the World Series wins or the batting titles or even the stats. It was because he played a kids game like a kid and showed the example to my generation to play hard. Anyone growing up in the Midwest who is 21-30 grew up watching Puckett as a kid and immediately idolized him.
I’ll never forget how he played the game with a smile. I’ll never forget all the joy he brought all kids my age.
I’ll never forget the autograph he gave me.