Sure, Puckett put up Hall of Fame numbers, but he's a first-ballot inductee because of the way he played -- and helped promote -- the game
By Kris Lien
A gamer is someone who sprints to first on every ball hit, even those to the pitcher.
Someone who is a good teammate and treats fans like they are an old childhood friend.
They would probably know the first names of the clubhouse attendants in every visiting city.
Or, after telling his teammates he would carry them, maybe a gamer would make a game-saving catch and then hit the winning home run in Game Six of the World Series.
That is Kirby Puckett. Puckett was a gamer and that is what he is most proud of as he nears the date where he will be forever immortalized as such when he is inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame this Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"What I hold the most dear," Puckett said, "is that all those guys whose plaques are hanging up there, they were what we call in baseball 'gamers,' meaning somebody who played the game the way it was supposed to be played, a throw-back kind of guy. That's what I tried to do."
He did it well enough to be remembered as one of the game's all-time elite players, but what his teammates remember most was his day-to-day attitude.
"He's a great hitter, there's no doubt about that," said long-time teammate Kent Hrbek. "Everybody knew that. But he played the game hard and he had fun playing it. He didn't take it as a job; he played it like he was a kid. When the game started, it was serious business and he went out there and played hard for the team and city he was playing for. Off the field, he had fun and had a good time. That's what the game is all about having fun. It's just a game."
While his list of accomplishments is remarkable, mention Puckett's name to anyone on the street from Minneapolis to Atlanta and you will likely hear a reference to Kirby's legendary performance in Game Six of the 1991 World Series.
"We came back from Atlanta and had just lost three straight," said '91 teammate Randy Bush, "and came in the next day and it was real quiet in the clubhouse. There was some tension in there. All of a sudden, we were faced with an elimination game where if we don't win, we're out.
"Kirby came in like he always did. He was bubbling and bouncing. He was loud. He was always loud, talking and stirring it up. Really it was almost as if the tension just got shoved out the door when he walked in."
Legend says that when he walked in, Puckett told everyone in the clubhouse that he was going to drive the bus that night. He instructed them to hop on his back and he would lead them to victory in a Joe Namath-like speech.
"He said all of those things," Bush said. "It's all accurate. Then he went out there and backed it up, which is the best part of the deal."
Backed it up is an understatement. Puckett performed what fans have voted as the top two moments in Twins history in the same game.
Puckett made 10 All-Star appearances, won two World Series titles, a batting title, six Gold Gloves and posted a lifetime .318 average.
In the early stages of the game Puckett floated through the air, approximately 42 inches high, and crashed into the fence to rob Atlanta's Ron Gant of a sure run-scoring extra-base hit.
As the game moved to extra innings and the Twins were facing a heart-breaking, season-ending loss with just one Atlanta run, Puckett came to bat against Charlie Liebrandt to leadoff the bottom of the 11th inning.
The rest is World Series history.
Puckett, always a free-swinger, took three pitches and was talked out of bunting by on-deck batter Chili Davis before lining a change-up into the bleachers in left-center field. As Puckett rounded the bases pumping his fist, broadcaster Jack Buck exclaimed, in words that still bring chills to Twins fans, "And we'll see you tomorrow night!"
"He makes a great catch in the outfield, first off," Hrbek said, "and then he comes up in a crucial situation in the game and the light was shining on him. He rose to the occasion. It was almost destined to happen. I think everybody in the whole stadium kind of figured that this was going to happen and that's what we thought, too. We all figured it was Kirby's time."
The Twins went on to win their second World Series on a masterpiece shutout by Jack Morris in Game Seven. It was Puckett's second title and surely helped him on his way to Cooperstown.
Upholding the game
The finality of Puckett's numbers alone are not equal to those of many of his new teammates in the Hall of Fame. But neither were those of Dodgers pitching great Sandy Koufax.
Puckett played 12 years before being forced to retire at age 36 when glaucoma stole the eyesight in his right eye during Spring Training in 1996. He appeared in 10 All-Star Games, won two World Series titles, a batting title, six Gold Gloves, and finished with a .318 career batting average.
Had he been able to continue to play, he could have reached the 3,000 hit plateau. He finished with 2,307 hits, averaging just more than 192 hits a season. At that pace he would have needed about four more years to join the 3,000 hit club. He accumulated more hits (2,040) in his first ten full seasons in the Major Leagues than any other player in the 20th Century.
Yes, Puckett put up Hall of Fame numbers while he played, but he was a first-ballot inductee because of the way he played the game and the way he carried himself on and off the field.
He was a superstar and one of the most popular players in all of baseball. Fans, opposing players, teammates, front office personnel, umpires and the media never could get enough of Puckett's smile, his chuckle, and his charm. He was an ideal role model and one of the greatest ambassadors to the sport the game has ever seen.
But the point Puckett is most proud of is one that didn't show up on the stat sheet. Yet everyone, especially the writers who elected him to the Hall of Fame, knew about it. In 12 years of playing the game day-in and day out, Puckett never took a single play off.
"It really scared me if I would hit a ball back to the pitcher and didn't sprint down the line. It would bother me," Puckett said. "Because I know that if Jackie Robinson, Duke Snyder, or Mickey Mantle would have hit that ball, they would have sprinted their butts down the line.
"I've always believed that there's a certain way that you should play this game. This game should be upheld in the utmost fashion. This game is very humbling, but when you put work into it and do it right, it's very rewarding. If you don't do it right and everybody sees it, you're labeled. I never wanted to be labeled. I wanted to be a guy that just played the game the way it was meant to be played, like the guys before me did. That's all I wanted to do."
Puckett's work ethic rubbed off on his teammates and together they combined to bring two championships to the state of Minnesota. Puckett's manager for those two titles was Tom Kelly. If you ask Kelly about Puckett's career, his normal response is that Kirby made everyone around him better.
It's a simple statement, but it's something that goes a long way in a team sport.
"When you have your best player doing the things he did, it really makes the manager's job easier," Kelly said. "It reflects on the rest of the players and they follow suit. The first year or two he was pretty quiet, but then he became one of the boys and he was the ringleader after that. I think there probably were players who arguably had more talent, but he worked very hard at being the best player he could be. He didn't take anything for granted. He worked hard every day."
Puckett was notorious for being the first player at the park and the last one to leave. Although he could have been a great Major League player on talent alone, he became a Hall of Famer because he worked harder than everyone else.
"If you want to be one of the best at this game, you have to work that much harder," said Puckett said. "A guy that I like to use as an example is Nolan Ryan. He pitched all those years and no matter what day, if you get to the park early like I did, Nolan would already be there and he'd be running. I bet he ran about ten miles. He'd be running, stretching, throwing, and doing things for his legs and just working. I'm sure if you asked Nolan, he'd say the same thing. He felt that he had to be at his best and do his best to get ready to perform.
"That's why I was always the first one to be at the ballpark and I was the last one to leave. I just wanted to be so much better than everybody else. I didn't want things to pass me by. I wanted to make sure that if the ship left, I wanted to be on the ship as well."
Puckett got everything that he could have out of the game of baseball. He certainly gave more to the sport than he received from it, and when his ship left he wasn't just on it, he was driving it.
From humble beginnings to a humble man
If you ask Kirby why he was driven to work so much harder than everyone else, he points to his upbringing in the projects of Chicago where he was constantly faced with the influence of gangs and drugs.
"It comes from trying to get out of where I came from," Puckett said about his desire. "Where I grew up was a place even the police called 'the place where hope died.' You know if you can get out of a place like that you can accomplish anything. And get to where I am right now, and be going to the Hall of Fame as well, is being rewarded with the highest honor that baseball has to offer."
While Puckett grew up in a tough neighborhood, a solid family environment and his love for baseball kept him on the right side of the tracks. The only thing Puckett wishes he could change about being inducted into the Hall of Fame is that his mom and dad won't be here to see it. Neither will his two brothers, who passed away in the last few years. But he knows their spirits will be there.
"My mom was the best mom in the world," said Puckett. "She was an at-home mom. My dad worked two jobs to take care of us and my mom took care of everything from A-to-Z, she was the boss. If you got in trouble, she was the disciplinarian. If you did something good, she was the first one there to pat you on the back. If you were struggling, she was there to give you inspiration. Whatever you needed, my mom would do that and for me that was very special.
"I thought I was very lucky that every time I came home for lunch, I got a hot meal for lunch and every night at dinner. My mom cooked every day. We had a good dinner every night. We ate good."
The rough beginnings of Puckett's life have not left his mind and he puts just as much effort into giving back to those who are less fortunate as he did on the field.
For nearly 11 years, Puckett has been heavily involved with both the Children's HeartLink and his own Puckett Scholars program, which provides scholarships for minority students to attend the University of Minnesota. Every winter he hosts the Kirby Puckett Eight Ball Invitational, which is a billiards tournament that is annually attended by many of the biggest celebrities in professional sports.
"Because of the Kirby Puckett Eight Ball invitational, Children's HeartLink has raised more than $3 million dollars to help needy children," said Claudia Liebrecht, who is the President of Children's Heartlink. "And it's also helped our name and brand recognition."
Children's HeartLink is an international medical charity and their focus is children with heart disease in developing countries where medical care is not readily available. Hearlink works to help build the infrastructure in these countries by training doctors and nurses and by donating supplies and equipment so that countries such as Kenya can treat their own children so they don't have to be flown half way around the world to get the care that they need.
"It's his sincerity, and Tonya's also," Liebrecht said Kirby and his wife. "They really are committed to making a difference in the lives of others because of their good fortune. They're very dedicated to helping those that are less fortunate, especially children. I think with his charity work in general, he's a role model for athletes and celebrities who do have success and how to share their good fortune with others."
Heading towards immortality
Puckett's remarkable journey takes him to Cooperstown, where months of frenzied preparation and celebration will culminate with the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.
Puckett's 11th inning home run beats the Braves in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series.
"This experience is something that less than one percent of the people in baseball get to do. It's pretty exciting," Puckett said. "My family and friends call me all the time. My phone is ringing constantly. They're so excited counting down these last few days. They went out and bought new clothes and new cameras and video recorders, because this is really special.
"I'm excited, but not that excited, even though I did go out and buy a new video camera. I never videotape anything, but I thought that an experience like this, I want to capture it."
The past few months have been so full of requests that Puckett rarely has had the time to go fishing this year, which is his passion these days. Since the announcement, the Hall of Fame electee has granted a slew of interview requests. Though he says he's overextended himself a bit, he's a man of his word and puts on the charm for each one.
Back in the day, Puckett graciously fielded question after question about his conquests on the field. These days people want to know if he's nervous or if he will cry during his speech.
"People ask me every day if I am nervous," said Puckett. "I'm not nervous. I'm just ready to get this over with and get my life back. But more importantly I'm really, really humbled by this. It's a real humbling experience for me because I never thought of myself as a Hall of Famer. That never came out of my mouth. I wanted to be a good ballplayer, be an All-Star and win a couple of championships, but that was about it."
While he's pretty certain that his family and friends will cry a bit on Sunday, Puckett doesn't think he will fill his eyes with any tears.
"I'm not one to cry much and I don't see myself crying," Puckett said. "I hate to say it, but it takes something pretty tragic for me to cry. But I think if my kids have kids and I'm around to be a grandpa, that will probably be the day that I cry. When my grandchildren are sitting on my lap, I'm going to say that, 'When grandpa was your age, your grandpa just wanted to play baseball. That's what he wanted to do. Grandpa never set out to be immortalized for life.' I can't even fathom that thought as we talk about it. I don't even know what it means."
The magnitude of the honor will likely begin to set in for Minnesota's favorite adopted son when he steps to the podium to give his speech. Twins public address announcer Bob Casey will serenade the crowd with his now famous, drawn-out announcement of Kirby's name. Then Puckett will face one of his greatest challenges when he attempts to stick to his written speech.
"It's not official yet, we're about 99 percent done," Puckett said of his speech. "I'm going to stick to it. I like to fly off the handle a bit. I got sat down by my agent Ron Shapiro, my wife Tonya, and Michael Moss and they said, 'this is probably the biggest speech you'll ever say Kirby, so it's very important that you read this the way it's written.' I don't look at papers when I speak to the public because I speak from the heart and when you speak from the heart you don't need papers.
"Not saying that this isn't from the heart, but it's really hard to read verbatim in front of 25,000 - 30,000 people. But I've been practicing and when I get to the Hall of Fame, this is what I'll be reading. I'm not going to go off the handle or jump off the ship. I'm going to stay right on course and hopefully I can leave a strong, powerful message and give a lot of people a lot of encouragement with the speech."
Puckett has already left an immeasurable impact on millions of people and the encouragement he offers Sunday will just be a thrilling ending chapter of a wonderful story.
Kris Lien is the site manager for twinsbaseball.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org