mile south of Comiskey Park on the Dan Ryan Expressway are
the Robert Taylor Homes. It was once said that this was a
place where hope went to die. The late Kirby Puckett,
a man for whom hope seemed to spring eternal, was raised in
these projects during the 1960s and early 70s. Though not
as treacherous as they were in later years, the Taylor Homes
swarmed with gangs and drugs and violence when Kirby was a
boy. He managed to dodge danger and temptation thanks to a
large and strong family. Undersized and overlooked, Kirby
was content to let his talent speak for itself. It took a
while for him to get noticed, but in the end, no one could
take their eyes off “Puck.” He was that kind of
was born on March 14, 1961. (Click
here for today's sports birthdays.)
His father, William had been a pretty good left-handed pitcher
in his day. In the '60s, he worked two jobs—mornings
in a department store and evenings as a supervisor in the
main post office. His mother, Catherine, looked after Kirby—the
youngest—and his five brothers and three sisters.
loved two things—school and baseball. He worked hard
in class and brought home solid grades. The rest of his life
was devoted to baseball. The buildings in the Robert Taylor
projects are far enough apart so that a batter hitting a Spaldeen
from one to another on the fly was credited with a home run.
On one bounce it was a double. Kirby pitched and hit and ran
and played every poisiotn in these games. When he was by himself,
he threw for hours to a strike zone painted on the side of
a wall. In the winter, he played in the house with a rolled
brothers urged him to play with older kids, so he could improve
his skills. He roamed the South Side looking for sandlot contests
and used his cheerful patter to charm his way into games.
was 12 and he was the only kid in the house, the Pucketts
moved to a better place in an integrated neighborhood. He
attended Calumet High School and made the baseball team as
athird baseman—his first time in organized ball—where
coach James McGhee recognized his talent instantly. He tutored
Kirby on the nuances of the game, and gave him extra hitting
drills to sharpen his already keen eyes.
could see things other players could not. He could pick up
the spin of the ball the instant it left the pitcher’s
hand. His teammates thought he was pulling their leg, but
he did seem to know exactly what was coming almost every time
became a star at the hot corner, and earned All-America mention.
He topped out at just 5-8, but was a rock-solid 170 pounds
by his senior year. By this time he was moonlighting for semipro
teams, playing against guys in their 20s and 30s. He was a
regular on the Askew Pirates, who were bankrolled by Roosevelt
Askew, the proprietor of a notorious Chicago pool hall.
were more scouts watching these semipro games than came to
Calumet. They were terrified of the inner city neighborhood
in which Kirby’s high school was located, so he did
his best work under the radar. After graduation, he went undrafted
by the pros, was offered no college scholarships, and received
just one inquiry from a junior college in Miami, which he
felt was too far away.
believed he was good enough to play pro ball, but he had to
eat, so he took a job with Ford at its South Side plant and
worked on the assembly line. He was the guy who put the carpeting
in Thunderbirds. Kirby had just over 60 seconds to complete
his assignment before the next T-Bird rolled down the line.
He thought the year off would help him get his head together
and make a good decision about what he wanted to do with the
rest of his life.
that problem for him when he was laid off after his 89th day.
Had he worked there 90 days he would have been eligible to
join the union. A temporary job with the census bureau followed,
but baseball was still occupying Kirby’s thoughts.
summer of 1980, Kirby heard about a tryout camp the Kansas
City Royals were holding in Chicago. He attended the camp
and did well, but wasn't offered a contract. It just so happened
that Dewy Kalmer, coach of the Bradley baseball team, was
watching Kirby, and he liked what he saw. It is unusual for
college coaches to be allowed into these tryouts, as they
are technically competing for the same players. Kalmer offered
him a scholarship and he grabbed it.
soon discovered that he was the fifth wheel in an all-senior
infield. Kalmer only put him in games as a pinch runner. He
went 10 for 10 on the basepaths, but was not happy with his
situation. His father had passed away while he was at school,
and while he was home he had plenty of time to think. After
he returned he expressed his displeasure about his lack of
playing time. The coach asked him if he could play the centerfield
and he said sure, though he had never set foot in the outfield.
Kirby took to the new position and finished the season strong
enough to earn 1981 All-Missouri Valley honors.
Puckett, 1993 Topps
left Bradley after one year to attend Triton Community College
in River Grove, Illinois. The classes at Bradley did not interest
him—he was in school to play baseball—so he decided
to go to a school that was closer to his mom, and where the
academics were less demanding.
to enrolling at Triton, Kirby joined a team in the Central
illinois Collegiate League for the summer. This was the year
the major leagues went on strike. A man named Jim Rantz, who
scouted for the Minnesota Twins, found himself with nothing
to do, so he decided to attend his son’s game in the
same league. Kirby was on the other team that dreadfully hot
day, and while everyone else on the field was dragging, the
kid from Chicago was simply explosive. He hit a homer, stole
a base, made some great catches and nailed a guy at the plate.
would later become scouting director for the Twins—had
a knack for finding diamonds in the rough. He jotted down
the name of the little guy with the big game.
moved on to Triton, were he played for Bob Symonds and roomed
with Darryl Boston’s little brother, David. Kirby shared
the outfield with another overlooked talent, Lance Johnson,
and hit .472 with 16 homers and 42 steals to win JC Player
of the Year honors for his region.
was eligible for the January free agent draft, and the Twins
took him with the third overall pick. They tried to sign him
for a few thousand, but Kirby said he preferred to finish
the year and then see where he was picked in the big June
draft. The man trying to sign him, Tom Hull, suffered a heart
attack and died during negotiations, but the Twins kept after
June draft approached, some scouts were advising Kirby to
wait and let their team draft him, telling him that he might
get a six-figure bonus. Kirby had heard about ploys like this
and took these promises with a grain of salt.
time he sat down with the Twins, he was ready to sign for
any respectable offer. He knew the team had dumped all its
high-priced talent after the 1981 strike, and owner Calvin
Griffith stated that he was going to let the kids play. That
sounded good to him. The Twins gave him a $20,000 bonus—still
decent money at the time—and assigned him to its Rookie
League team in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Kirby’s plan
was to play ball until he was 25. If he wasn’t in the
majors by then, he’d quit and become a cop. If that
didn’t work out, he’d become a garbage man. And
as he liked to say, he would have been the best garbage man
coach at Triton heard he’d been assigned to a Appalachian
League team, he told Kirby that he would destroy the pitching
and earn a quick promotion. That is exactly what happened.
He hit .382 in 65 games.
played most of the year in leftfield, as the organization
felt that his arm was not strong enough for center. He ran
into Coach McGhee that winter, who laughed when he heard this
news —the Twins were idiots, he said. They’d soon
find out throwing was one of Kirby’s best skills.
looked a little different than McGhee remembered him. That
fall, when the Twins sent him to the Instructional league,
he slumped badly and decided to shave his head—or as
he later called it, the Lou Gossett Look. He got hot after
that and never let it grow back. Instructional league also
happned to be where he first met two important managers in
his career, Cal Ermer and Tom Kelly.
Puckett, 1991 Topps
Twins started Kirby off at High-A Visalia in 1983 and moved
him back to centerfield. He injured his right hamstring early
in the season and didn’t tell anyone, attempting to
play through it. This caused him to strain his other hamstring,
and he labored through the rest of the season getting taped
up like a mummy before each game. Kirby still managed to hit
.314 with 48 stolen bases and was named California League
MVP. He went back to Florida for a second year in the Instructional
League and torched opposing pitching, convincing the Twins
to move him all the way up to Class-AAA Portland for 1984,
where Ermer ran the show.
batted leadoff for the Mud Hens, and soon discovered a new
pitch: the slider. It took him a couple of weeks to learn
to lay off the pitch, and by May he was hitting the ball with
authority. During a three-day rainout in Portland, the Twins
called up Kirby. They needed a new centerfielder after Jim
Eisenreich went on the DL from complications related to Tourettes
Syndrome. Ermer sensed he was nervous, so he took Kirby aside
and assured him that a hitter like him would actually find
it easier in the big leagues. The lighting was better and
the pitchers had good control. For a kid who swung at anything
close, he was likely to see much better pitches than at Triple-A.
In fact, Ermer predicted, he was sure Kirby would get four
hits in his first game.
flew to Anaheim where the Twins were playing the Angels that
night. When he arrived at the airport, there was no one there
from the team to meet him, and he only had $10 in his wallet.
He convinced a Japanese cabbie to drive him to the stadium,
and when he stopped the meter it read $60. Kirby left one
bag in the cab, and went hunting inside the stadium for the
traveling secretary, who gave him a $100 bill. Asked to choose
a number, Kirby asked for 14, Ernie Banks’s number.
Sorry, Kent Hrbek had that one. How about Willie Mays, 24?
Sorry again, that belongs to Tom Brunansky. 34? A few minutes
later he was in uniform #34 and on the field taking BP.
other Twins saw their new centerfielder, they thought manager
Bill Gardner had lost his mind. This bowling ball of a kid
who called everyone Mister could not be for real. Gardner
was scared to use Kirby right off the plane, so he told him
to relax and watch the other guys. He would start the following
a night it was. The fun started pre-game for Kirby, when Reggie
Jackson wandered over and introduced himself. Reggie said
it looked like Kirby could hit the ball a long way. When Kirby
informed him that he was a lowly singles hitter, Jackson scoffed
and said, “What am I doing shaking your hand?”
for the Angels that night was veteran Jim Slaton. Kirby ripped
the first strike he saw between second and third but Dickie
Schoefield’s throw nipped him at first. Kirby singled
up the middle in his second at-bat, then stole second and
scored on a John Castino single. Kirby cracked three more
hits that night to become just the ninth player in history
to record a four-hit game in his major league debut.
Twins returned to Minnesota, Kirby got his first look at a
domed stadium and logged his first game on artificial turf.
So springy was the carpet, it took a couple of games for him
to learn how to keep bloop singles from becoming triples.
But he had no trouble figuring out how to gain a homefield
advantage. Kirby noticed that a lot of players who wore plastic
lceats in the field changed to metal ones when they hit. He
also noticed that these players tended to slip when they went
from the dirt to the turf rounding second base. He amassed
16 assists as a rookie, mostly throwing behind guys who lost
their footing on the Metrodome’s slick playing surface.
1987 Baseball Cards Magazine
finished the season at .296 with no homers and just 17 extra-base
hits. He stole 14 bases, which was good enough to lead the
slow-footed Twins. It was an thrilling season despite Minnesota’s
81-81 mark. The AL West was atrocious that year, with the
Royals eking out a division title with just 84 victories.
And despite being slow, the Twins were a young and exciting
team. All nine starters were in their 20s, including Hrbek,
Brunansky, Gary Gaetti and Tim Teufel, who finished fourth
in the Rookie of the Year voting, right behind Kirby. The
pitching staff was led by 24-year-old lefty Frank Viola, and
the bullpen was anchored by workhorse closer Ron Davis.
the season, Kirby started making arrangements to play winter
ball. He did so to keep in shape, but mostly to add $15,000
to his $40,000 rookie salary. The Twins did not want him to
get hurt, so they offered him $10,000 to stay home. That sounded
good to Kirby, so he hung out in Chicago and hit the weight
got off to a disappointing start in 1985, and Gardner got
the ax after 62 games. Pitching coach Ray Miller took over,
but could not coax more than .500 ball out of his players.
Kirby proved his rookie year was no fluke, rapping out 199
hits in a league-high 691 at-bats. This time his balls were
finding the walls, as he finished with 29 doubles, 13 triples
and four home runs. He also led the team again with 21 steals.
And he met his future wife, Tonya.
the season, Kirby’s teammates were giving him crap about
his inability to pull the ball. Indeed, most of his hits went
up the middle or to right field. Without saying a thing, Kirby
stepped to the plate in batting practice and proceeded to
yank 10 long bombs several rows back in the leftfield seats.
The Twins were speechless. In more than a thousand major league
at-bats, Kirby had a grand total of four home runs.
always knew Kirby had it in him. As the organization’s
roving hitting instructor, he had talked to Kirby on several
occasions about tapping his power. Oliva compared him to Jim
Wynn, the fireplug slugger who regularly cleared the fences
at three tough ballparks—the Astrodome, Dodger Stadium
and Yankee Stadium during his career. Kirby watched film of
Wynn and realized that he would have to lengthen his swing
to generate the power the Toy Cannon did, so he abandoned
took another step forward in 1986, boosting his average up
above .300 and reaching the stands with more frequency. As
the All-Star Game approached he was hitting .340 and on pace
for a 30-homer, 100-RBI season. Those numbers were good enough
for the fans, who voted him a starter in the Mid-Season Classic—the
first Twin to earn that honor since Roy Smalley in 1979. Kirby
finished the year batting .328 with 31 homers and 96 RBIs.
over his breakthrough season was dampened somewhat by another
poor showing by the team. The Twins were 71-91 and seemingly
squandering their young talent. The bright side of the lousy
season was that Tom Kelly—a player favorite—was
given the managerial reins in September and the Twins played
winning ball for him.
the AL West was the Wild West, as no one seemed to want the
division crown. All six teams spent the season within a winning
streak of first place, but it was not until late September
that the Twins made their final push to outdistance the Royals
by two victories. They did it with mirrors and an incredible
homefield edge, going 56-25 in the Metrodome. Viola won 17,
aing Bert Blyleven chipped in 15, and no one else on the staff
came within sniffing range of double digits. Jeff Reardon,
picked up from the Montreal Expos, contributed 31 saves despite
a bloated 4.48 ERA.
drove the engine. Hrbek, Gaetti and Brunansky each topped
30 homers, and Kirby batted .332 with 28 taters and a league-leading
207 hits. Beyond these four there wasn’t much else.
Leftfielder Dan Gladden batted .249, second baseman Steve
Lombardozzi hit .238 and catcher Tim Laudner brought up the
rear at .191.
ALCS, the Twins faced the Tigers, exhausted from a thrilling
duel with the Toronto Blue Jays. They nearly swept Detroit,
taking the first two in the dome before dropping a 7-6 heartbreaker.
Viola and Blyleven mopped up the final two games to send the
Twins to their first World Series since 1965. Kirby batted
just .208 in the series. The stars for Minnesota were Brunansky
and Gladden with seven hits apiece.
to their thin pitching staffs, the Twins and St. Louis Cardinals
met in what promised to be a hitting-rich World Series. Game
1 was the first ever Fall Classic contest played in a dome,
and Minnesota cruised to a 10-1 victory. Game 2 provided more
fireworks with the home team winning 8-4. Back in St. Louis,
the Cardinals restored order with three straight victories.
Game 6 in the Metrodome looked like the last one of the year,
as the Cardinals raked Minnesota pitching for five early runs.
But DH Don Baylor, picked up from the Boston Red Sox at the
end of the year, crashed a three-run homer in the fifth inning
to keep things close, and then Hrbek blasted a grand slam
an inning later to power an 11-5 win.
set against a constant and deafening roar, saw the Twins play
small ball against Joe Magrane, for a 4-2 win and the franchise’s
first championship since they were the Washington Senators.
Kirby batted .350 overall, but was at his best in the final
two games, with six hits. Besides earning his first World
Series ring, he also got to see his old JC teammate, Lance
Johnson, for the first time since 1982. Johnson was a rookie
for the Cardinals that year and got into a game as a defensive
led the league in hits again in 1988 with a career-high 234,
and batted .356. Incredibly, this was not good enough for
the batting title, which went to Wade Boggs at .366. The Twins
made a respectable showing, winning more than 90 games, but
the power-laden Oakland A’s tore the league apart and
made a mockery of the AL West race. Kirby earned another All-Star
nod (he would do so 10 years in a row), and won his third
Gold Glove (he would win six in all). He also knocked in an
eye-popping 121 RBIs.
1988 Baseball America's
one and only batting title came in 1989, when he hit .339
to Boggs’s .330. He also was the AL’s hits leader
for the third straight year, with 215. The Twins finished
a disappointing fifth in a surprisingly strong division which
was once again dominated by the A’s.
bottomed out in 1990, ending the campaign in the AL West cellar
with just 74 victories. The talent was there, but several
hitters had off years, including Kirby, who batted a disappointing
.298 with just 12 home runs and five stolen bases. The pitching
staff had some decent arms, including Kevin Tapani and Rick
Aguilera, who came over from the New York Mets in the previous
season’s Viola trade. Scott Erickson also looked good
in 17 starts.
three hurlers, along with free agent pickup Jack Morris, helped
turn the Twins around in 1991, when the went from worst to
first in a stunning reversal of fortune. The AL West was stronger
than ever, with every team playing .500 ball or better. But
the Twins managed to stay in front by a few games before distancing
themselves from the pack in September. The team batted .280
and manufactured runs up and down the order. No player reached
30 homers, and only DH Chili Davis recorded more than 20.
No player knocked in or scored 100 runs, either. They just
played great clutch baseball. Kirby had a productive year
as he turned 30, with 195 hits, 15 homers, 11 steals and a
got off to a rocky start for the Twins, as they managed just
one win in the opening games at the Metrodome against tthe
Toronto Blue Jays. But they won Game 3 in 10 innings and took
the next two to win the pennant and set up a World Series
showdown with another worst-to-first team, the Atlanta Braves.
took the first two games on clutch home runs by Hrbek and
Scott Leius, and the fine pitching of Morris, Tapani and Aguilera.
Game 3 went to the Braves on an extra-innings hit by Mark
Lemke. Lemke scored the winning run in Game 4 after a ninth-inning
triple, evening the series at two games apiece. Game 5 gave
Atlanta a sweep of their home games with a 14-5 laugher.
returned to Minneapolis down but not out. The team was confident
about its chances with Morris on the hill for Game 7, but
needed a hero to get the through Game 6. Kirby, in the midst
of a lackluster series, stepped up. “Jump on board,
boys,” he announced in the clubhouse. “I’m
going to carry us tonight. Just back me up a little and I’ll
take us to Game Seven.”
snaring a Ron Gant line drive against the fence to preserve
a 2-2 tie (he had knocked in one of those runs and scored
the other), Kirby drove in the go-ahead run. The Braves tied
the game and sent it into extra innings. In the bottom of
the 11th, Atlanta called in crafty Charlie Liebrandt to start
the inning. Davis was warming up in the on deck circle and
Kirby asked for his advice. Davis told him to stay off the
low stuff and wait for a mistake up in the zone. Kirby took
a dead fish for a low strike, watched two more pitches go
by, then jumped all over a high change and deposited it in
the leftfield stands for a 4-3 victory.
was even more exciting. The two teams were locked in a scoreless
struggle that went to the 10th inning with the championship
hanging on every pitch. Gladden blooped a double and was bunted
to third. Kirby came up, but there was no way manager Atlanta
Bobby Cox would let him beat the Braves. Kirby and then Hrbek
were issued intentional passes, and Gene Larkin, a switch-hitting
utlityman, came to the plate. Alejandro Pena got too much
of the strike zone with a fastball and Larkin lifted the pitch
into deep rightfield. Gladden trotted home and the Twins were
unlikely champions for the second time in five seasons.
Kirby Puckett, 1991 Studio
the Game 7 hero, left the Twins for the Blue Jays over the
winter, and Minnesota was edged by the A’s in 1992.
Kirby had a nice year, leading the league in hits for the
fourth time in six seasons with 210. He was rewarded with
a new contract that paid him over $6 million a year and triggered
a salary spiral throughout baseball. In 1993, the Twins endured
a disastrous season, falling to fifth place in the final year
of the two-division setup. Kirby had a so-so season, batting
.296, but he earned his money in the power department, as
he crashed 22 homers—the most for him since 1988.
a crazy 1994 campaign. The Twins played losing baseball again,
but two of their hitters—Kirby and second baseman Chuck
Knoblauch—were having unbelievable seasons. Knobby was
racking up doubles at a record rate and was on pace to finish
with close to 70 when the season ended abruptly in early August.
Kirby was approaching 30 homers again, and was doing the best
clutch hitting of his career. Time and again he came to the
plate with runners on, and he almost always found a way to
move them along or drive them in. He was averaging better
than an RBI per game when the season ended, finishing with
112—the most in the league by a wide margin.
power surge continued in 1995, as he led the team in RBIs
and slugging to go with a solid .314 average. It was another
down year for the Twins, however, as they finished in AL Central
cellar with a mere 56 victories.
training began in 1996, Kirby’s ticket to Cooperstown
was all but punched. Predictions that his unusual body would
wear down or slow him down proved wrong, and it appeared like
he could go on forever. Figuring at least five more productive
seasons, Kirby seemed assured of reaching 3,000 hits and 300
homers, and had a shot at 600 doubles and 1,500 RBIs. He was
having a great spring, batting well over .300.
morning he woke up and could not see Tonya out of his right
eye. He blinked and rubbed but nothing helped. Kirby had glaucoma
and was told that he would soon be totally blind in that eye.
Initially devastated by this news, he came to grips with reality
and, as always, found the silver lining in the dark cloud.
He took a front office job with the Twins and spent loads
of time with his young children, Catherine and Kirby Jr. He
also devoted himself to raising awareness of glaucoma.
Kirby Puckett, 1992 Score
2001, Kirby was elected to the Hall of Fame. He gave a heartfelt
speech that added even greater luster to his image. He was
the most popular, beloved and respected athlete ever to play
later, everything changed. During divorce proceedings with
Tonya, Kirby was accused of physically abusing her. He denied
the claims, but soon it was revealed that he had been carrying
on affair with another woman since his rookie year. She confirmed
that Kirby had a dark side.
to his misery were charges that he had fondled a woman in
a restaurant. He was found not guilty after a brief trial,
but afterwards he decided to cut ties with the Twins, moved
to Arizona, and largely disappeared from sight. Friends who
saw him were shocked to discover that his weight had ballooned
to over 300 pounds.
of 2006, Kirby suffered a massive stroke and died a day later
in a Phoenix hospital, a few days short of his 46th birthday.
Puckett played 12 seasons for the Twins. He won a pair of
World Series championships, participated in 10 All-Star Games,
won six Gold Gloves and led the league in hits four times.
He topped .300 in eight of his last 10 seasons, finishing
with a .318 average, 2,304 hits, 1,071 runs, 1,085 RBIs, 414
doubles, 57 triples and 207 home runs—outstanding numbers
by any measure, but particularly impressive for a man who
batted leadoff much of his career.
of the unseemly charges and accusations that dogged him late
in life, Kirby was remembered fondly by teammates and fans.
His everyman's body, incessantly upbeat attitude and infectious
smile—not to mention his Hall of Fame plaque—will
likely be the trademarks of his life and career.
Puckett, 1993 Upper Deck Insert
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