In Minnesota, Kirby Puckett Remains a Folk Hero
When you reach adulthood, you look at the world differently, the sporting world in particular. You see things for what they really are and your investment is tempered; the games are no longer life-and-death, as it seemed when you were a child.
Players and teams can appear mythical and god-like when your mind hasn’t matured enough to know that they are just as flawed and mortal as the rest of us.
As I grew up, that player was Kirby Puckett.
It’s almost incomprehensible that it has been ten years since Puck left us. Though he was diminutive in stature (well, height anyway), Puckett was larger than life to a generation of children from Minnesota, and I was no different.
Comments from then Twins general manager Andy MacPhail only fueled such fire when he said “When you have a player like Kirby Puckett, it’s just blind luck and you’re blessed.”
Watching games replete with lasers laced to all fields, speed despite a wrecking-ball body and of course, what dropped jaws across the state, Puckett’s ability to go up over the wall and turn home runs into outs and make it look routine.
A folk hero requires more than talent, though. Such a character needs an outsized persona, and Puckett possessed that, as well. The Hall of Famer had an ever-present smile to go along with a high-pitched shriek of a laugh; it was clear that every teammate and opponent adored him.
Then there were the performances at the most critical of times that only supported what catcher and 1991 teammate Brian Harper said, “We always expected Puck to carry us.”
Six hits and robbery of a would-be Robin Yount grand slam in Milwaukee when the Twins were edging closer to a division title in 1987 got the ball rolling. By the time he told the team to “Jump on my back, I’m going to carry us tonight,” prior to Game 6 of that ’91 Fall Classic, only to deliver an RBI triple, one of the greatest catches in Series history and the shot to left-center that gave us “Tomorrow night,” there could be no doubt.
When Puckett announced his retirement due to glaucoma, grown men cried at the press conference. As were fans around the state of Minnesota. As was I.
There is a statue of Puckett commemorating that game-winning blast from the Twins’ last championship standing outside of Target Field, but the legacy of #34 goes well beyond that.
Puckett was a mentor for Torii Hunter, who picked up the torch and carried it valiantly, eventually handing it off to Denard Span. With Hunter lingering around the Twins’ Fort Myers spring camp this year, words passed down from Puck will no doubt make their way to Byron Buxton’s ears.
The motto for the Twins has long been “Work hard, play hard,” and that was set into motion by Kirby Puckett. A perennial All-Star who insisted “I’m just one of the guys,” ran out every ground ball and sometimes turned outs into hits. When the team’s superstar exerts such effort, the role players will have little choice but to follow suit. And there are two World Series and six American League Central division title banners hanging at Target Field as a result of Puckett’s far-reaching influence.
We learned just how human Puckett really was late in his life, and his indiscretions are not ignored. But for a generation of Twins fans, and even those who have been told larger-than-life tales of his exploits, from the Teflon Confines to Target Field to high school and Little League parks strewn throughout the state, Kirby Puckett set the standard for what baseball in Minnesota should look like.
We loved him for it then. We love him for it now. We will always love him for it.