A 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 baseball player.

Kirby 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.

Kirby 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 up sock.

Kirby’s 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.

When Kirby 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.

Kirby 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 he swung.

Kirby Puckett photo
 

Kirby 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.

There 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.

Kirby 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.

Ford solved 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.

In the 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.

Kirby 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.

Kirby Puckett, 1993 Topps

 

 

Kirby 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.

Prior 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. Rantz—who 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.

Kirby 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.

Kirby 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 him.

As the 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.

The next 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 in Chicago.

When Kirby’s 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.

Kirby 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.

Kirby 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.

Kirby Puckett, 1991 Topps
 

The 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.

Kirby 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.

Kirby 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.

When the 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 night.

And what 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?”

Pitching 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.

When the 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.

Kirby Puckett,
1987 Baseball Cards Magazine
 

Kirby 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.

After 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 room.

The Twins 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.

Late in 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.

Tony Oliva 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 the idea.

Kirby 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.

The joy 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.

In 1987, 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.

The offense 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.

In the 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.

Thanks 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.

Game 7, 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 replacement.

Kirby 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.

Kirby Puckett,
1988 Baseball America's
Baseball Almanac
 

Kirby’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.

The Twins 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.

These 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 .319 average.

The ALCS 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.

Minnesota 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.

The Twins 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.”

After 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.

Game 7 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
 

Morris, 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.

Then came 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.

Kirby’s 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.

As spring 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.

Then one 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
 

In 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 in Minnesota.

A year 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.

Adding 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.

In March of 2006, Kirby suffered a massive stroke and died a day later in a Phoenix hospital, a few days short of his 46th birthday.

Kirby 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.

In spite 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.

Kirby Puckett, 1993 Upper Deck Insert
 

 
 

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