When I was growing up, Minnesota took second place a lot: the Twins in 1965, the North Stars in 1981, the Vikings four times, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale. Second place almost defined us.
In 1987 Puckett, Hrbek, and a crazily confident young Twins team came from 6th place to squeak out a Western Division title over the Royals and the up-and-coming Oakland A's. In the pennant series, they rolled over a Tigers team that won 98 games, the same squad that won the World Series in 1984. The upstart Twins then kept their cool to defeat St. Louis in seven games in the World Series.
Twins territory was delirious.
Four years later Puckett, Krbek and the 1991 Twins did essentially the same thing, this time rolling the Blue Jays and defeating the Braves, in the most thrilling series I have ever witnessed. In 1991, Kirby hit 4 postseason home runs. He was the ALCS MVP and a World Series hero.
And the second place taste was permanently washed out of my mouth.
Of course Kirby did not do it all alone, but he was the Twins center fielder during the great years. He began as our leadoff hitter - then, after Tony Oliva helped him with his swing, he became our number 3 hitter.
In his very first game Kirby went 4-for-5 and stole a base. That year, 1984, the Twins went from longtime losers to second in the AL West. The previous year the almost brand new Metrodome drew 10,000 paid attendees a game. In 1984, home attendance doubled. Until the swoon after the 1994 strike, while Kirby played, the Metrodome had some of the best attendance in the league.
In our grit-free modern era, it's become impossible to appreciate that Kirby played the outfield almost every game while he was in the majors. He never went on the DL until he was hit in the eye with the pitch that ended his career, in September, 1995.
Kirby was the best Twins defensive center fielder I had seen up to then, and I have been a fan since the playoff Twins of the late 1960's. After a mercifully short Rich Becker era, an even better center fielder joined the Twins in Torii Hunter. Unlike Torii, Kirby did not catch balls on the full out stretch. Kirby slid for them. Torii had a better first step and stole more homers. But Kirby was dependable, and Kirby had a stronger arm than Torii. (He also never hurt himself by foolishly running up the Fenway Park fence.)
Was Kirby Puckett flawed? Was he as human as any of us? Sure. Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Is he in heaven? It doesn't matter to me. The questions give me no pleasure to contemplate, and the possible answers have no relation to my love of baseball.
"Puck" lived life with gusto. On and off the field, it seems, he played hard; and on the ball field he played well. He loved my favorite game so much he made it the title of his autobiography.
In 1992, Puckett came in second in the MVP voting to Dennis Eckersley. He had one of his best seasons in the final year of a 3-year, $3 million per year contract. He took a home town discount to re-sign with Minnesota. The Red Sox offered him more.
He wrote "I Love This Game" that offseason, with his new contract in hand. Years before the tragedies that ended his career and his life prematurely, the book's last sentence, which also almost sounds like a foreign language today, 20 years later, tells you why I will always cherish his memory:
"I'm a Minnesota Twin forever."