Former Minnesota Twin Kirby Puckett, the most popular athlete ever to play in this state, suffered a massive stroke over the weekend. It is being reported that he will be removed from life support later tonight. Kirby is 45 years old.
Kirby was liked and respected everywhere, but I think you had to be a Twins fan to fully appreciate him. His cheerful confidence and good humor never flagged. He never played at less than full speed, no matter how insignificant a game may have been in the standings. Kirby’s stumpy appearance was deceiving; he was fast, especially in his early years, and was one of the strongest men in baseball. Notwithstanding his image, which bordered on the cuddly, Kirby was tough. I once saw a catcher try to block the plate as he was coming in to score; Puckett knocked him half way to the dugout.
Kirby led the Twins to two World Series titles. On October 26, 1991, he played the best game in the history of Minnesota sports: the fabled Game 6 of the World Series. The Twins trailed the Atlanta Braves three games to two. Kirby took the series to its final game almost single-handedly; through nine innings, he had knocked in two runs and scored another. He had also saved a run, and the game, with one of his gravity-defying leaps against the left-center field wall. The game went into extra innings. By the bottom of the 11th, it was growing late in Minnesota…and it was the middle of the night in Munich, where I was traveling on business.
It was the only maybe-paranormal experience I’ve ever had. I woke with a start in my hotel room, and something led me to crawl across the floor to an old, black and white television set in the middle of the room. I turned it on, and waited while the picture came into focus. I didn’t even have to change the channel–it was the bottom of the 11th, live from the Metrodome. The crowd was screaming; the announcers were excited, too, but I couldn’t understand a word they said. A Braves left-hander was pitching to Kirby, who took the first two pitches. The third, he knocked over the fence to send the series to Game 7. The crowd and the Twins went stark, raving mad. I turned off the TV and went back to sleep; in the morning, I wasn’t sure whether I’d seen Kirby win the game with a home run or not.
The iconic photo below shows Puckett rounding the bases after hitting his Game 6 winner:
My favorite Puckett moments were the times–lots of them–when he would time his leap perfectly against the Metrodome’s center field fence, and rob an opponent of a home run:
Kirby was forced into retirement, prematurely, by glaucoma that ruined his vision in one eye. The team held a press conference to announce his retirement, at which I think Kirby was the only person who wasn’t sobbing. Puckett was a good man by all accounts; like many athletes, he struggled to find any retirement activity as fulfilling as baseball. He was beloved to the end by every sports fan and every child in Minnesota.
UPDATE: Television news has just announced that Kirby Puckett passed away a few minutes ago.
MORE: Mitch Berg remembers Kirby.
AND, FINALLY: I can’t resist adding this anecdote from a commenter on Shot in the Dark:
I listened to Fox Sports on XM radio last night on a trip from Minneapolis to North Dakota. They dedicated the entire four hour show to Kirby. Although there were so many touching stories about Kirby, the one that brought tears was the following.
A man called in that his kid brother was being treated for cancer at the Mayo Clinic in October, 1991. On the morning of Game 6, Kirby Puckett, unannounced, arrived at the Mayo Clinic with balloons and gifts for the sick kids. He stopped and visited with this man’s brother and told him (I paraphrase) only the good die young.
His brother died as did Kirby, both way too young. Thank you Kirby for the memories of baseball and your kindness.