March 7, 2006
KirbyKirby Puckett woke up with the world on a string. At 34 years old, he was coming to the end of his 12th major-league season, all with the Minnesota Twins. Still a productive player with the bat, Puckett was on pace to drive in 100 runs for the fourth time and hit .300 for a ninth time. Just days prior, he'd roped his 2,300th career hit, and seemed a lock to reach one of baseball's magic numbers, 3,000 hits. He was as popular a player as baseball had, an icon to Twins fans and a running, jumping, swinging reminder of how much fun it is to play the greatest game ever invented.
It really doesn't seem that long ago, does it?
Puckett started that afternoon against the Cleveland Indians. It was the Twins' final home game of the season, a sparsely-attended affair near the end of a brutal 56-88 campaign. Coming to the plate in the bottom of the first, Puckett received a warm cheer from the fewer than 10,000 people in attendance. He stepped into the box, settled the round body that had been so critical to his popularity, and waited for a pitch to lash for another base hit.
He would never do so again. Dennis Martinez hit Puckett in the face with a fastball, sending him to the ground with a broken jaw. Puckett was pulled from the game, and sat out the Twins' last series in his hometown of Chicago.
Five-and-a-half months later, his jaw healed and his heart ready for another season, his right eye argued otherwise. He developed glaucoma that March, waking up one morning unable to see properly. For all of our focus on ligaments and joints and muscles, the body parts that athletes truly cannot do without are their eyes. The glaucoma took away Puckett's career, forcing him to retire abruptly. In less than six months, he'd gone from being a popular star with years left of doing what he loved to a 35-year-old with almost all of his skills intact and no way to use them.
Puckett's popularity, his contributions to two of the most surprising championship teams in the expansion era and the tragic end to his playing days made his election to baseball's Hall of Fame a foregone conclusion. He was so honored in 2001, on his first pass through the system. The merits of that have been debated by analysts, but it's clear that Puckett's election was more than the evaluation of a baseball player against the standards of his peers.
The body of work a player puts up is largely measurable, quantifiable. We can say with some precision how much a player's performance contributes to his team's success, and those evaluations go a long way to determining who gets deemed worthy of immortality and who gets consigned to the next tier down.
Claims about a player's merit are often countered by protestations that the numbers don't capture all of a player's value. That value gets exaggerated often, usually in defense of players who share certain characteristics that have little to do with baseball. Words like "leader" and "clutch" and "special" get tossed around so often, with such little justification and often with fairly obvious biases, that it becomes easier to toss it all in the circular file and focus on what we know: the numbers. Often, those claims of special abilities break down on closer inspection.
At the edges of any spectrum, however, there are outliers, people who bring more to the table than what their performance record indicates. Puckett was one of those outliers. He lost many steps in center field at a young age, and he didn't draw a ton of walks or put up big slugging averages outside of his peak. His career was incredibly short for a Hall of Famer, truncated by an injury that places his career stats in a gray area.
It was Puckett, though, who hit one of the greatest home runs in World Series history, an 11th-inning blast in Game Six of the 1991 Fall Classic that kept the Twins alive to win the championship the next night. Creating that memory matters. Puckett made a tremendous catch in that game as well, up against the plexiglass in center field. We remember that. Puckett was the face of the 1987 Twins, who came from nowhere to win the World Series. Kent Hrbek was that team's best player, but Puckett was its star.
There aren't many players who have a list of credentials like this. Puckett made memories, he made moments, he made fans. Those things, and not his career totals, make today such a sad day for baseball fans.
After losing the game he loved, Puckett went through some difficult times. Prone to weight gain as a player, he became even bigger in retirement, almost shockingly so. Personal problems--most notably accusations of abuse, infidelity and sexual assault--chipped away at his image and his popularity and pushed him out of the spotlight. There's no justification for the wrong he did. It is possible, however, to feel sympathy for a man who had the life he loved--truly, deeply loved--taken from him at a young age. Perhaps he didn't know quite how to handle that, didn't deal with the emotions as well as he might have.
No one should have their career taken from them at 35, and no one should die at 44. It is my fervent hope that Puckett's family, his children and their children and their children's children, go on to long, prosperous and happy lives, my hope that the tragedies Puckett endured pay the bills for his progeny for a century to come. Puckett made baseball a better place, and for that, we should all be thankful.
I saw the Cubs and A's yesterday, but will save that writeup for another day.
The Western Hemisphere portion of the World Baseball Classic starts today, and as I finish this column, the Dominican Republic leads Venezuela 2-0 in the third inning. I'll be at both Pool B games today, the U.S./Mexico tilt at Chase Field and the Canada/South Africa game tonight at Scottsdale Stadium.
If the Hyatt here in Phoenix is any indication, look for the crowd at today's first game to have a decidedly Mexcian feel. There seemed to be a lot of people here for this event, and I saw a smattering of Team Mexico logowear in the hotel lobby and bar last night. This is consistent with what I've said all along: this event is a much bigger deal for baseball fans outside of the U.S. than inside, and I think the raucous enthusiasm of the crowd at the D.R./Venezuela game supports that notion. I'm genuinely curious as to the size, loyalties and volume of the crowds at the two games today, perhaps more than I am about the games themselves.
My objections to any number of facets of the WBC are well-known. However, I have to say that I'm in favor of more baseball on TV in March. I'd also be as happy with more baseball on TV in December, however.
After spending some time with the final rosters, I'm picking Venezuela to win it all, their current deficit notwithstanding. Johan Santana is a huge equalizer, and they've lost less talent than the U.S. or the Dominican Republic teams have. Don't go rushing to your bookie; this is a series in which virtually anything can happen, because that's the way baseball is.