Ten years ago today, Hall of Famer, World Series Hero, and life-long Twin Kirby Puckett was taken off life support following a massive stroke and passed away. He was 45 years old. He was and still is the second youngest living member of the Baseball Hall of Fame to die.
Ten years ago today, I remember sitting down at my desk in my small apartment in New York City and seeing the headline, "Baseball HOF Suffers Massive Stroke." I was concerned about who it was and pressed the link, not ready for the gut punch that came next.
I wore my baby blue Hall of Fame edition Kirby Puckett jersey for three days straight. I slept in it. I wore it to school. I wore it work. And at the time, that was the most expensive piece of clothing I owned. I didn't care. I wasn't going to take it off.
I walked Manhattan for a few wearing my jersey. It was cathartic in a weird way. Many people noticed it and came up so me and complimented my jersey, and told me their own story about Kirby Puckett. I appreciated that. My supervisor at work saw me wearing it the day after he died and asked me if I had just bought that jersey because he had died. I remained calm. "No," I said back, wondering where you would even get a Hall of Fame edition baby blue Kirby Puckett Jersey in Manhattan before 9 am, and if my supervisor had even noticed I'd been wearing the same thing for the last day. "Kirby Puckett was my hero."
My memories of the 1987 World Series are very faint, having been only three years old, but I was definitely aware of what had happened. I remember riding in my car seat past Kenwood School, and seeing a giant Homer Hanky draped over an entire side of the building. And even then, Kirby Puckett was my favorite. Kirby Puckett was always my favorite. I was so young I didn't even understand the concept of a foul ball, but when I asked my parents why Kirby had swung three times and wasn't out they just told me -- god bless them -- "Because Kirby is special." I literally thought Kirby Puckett just got as many pitches thrown to him as he needed because he was special. He was Kirby Puckett.
When I, as a 6 year old in 1991, ran to my parents in the morning to ask them what had happened in Game 6, and my dad explained to me what had happened as he tied his tie, I was not surprised. I wasn't an iota surprised. At that age, and from what I knew, that was what was supposed to happen. Of course Kirby Puckett was the hero. Of course he won the game. To me, it was like it had already happened. Of course Kirby did that! He was Kirby Puckett. I didn't understand why people thought it was such a big deal.
Sometimes I talk to other baseball fans who think Kirby Puckett became the hero after hitting that walk-off home run in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kirby was already the hero. Kirby was already beloved. His performance in Game 6 was just a validation of what we already all knew and felt, which is exactly what made it so great. Kirby did not fail.
Except, Kirby did fail. He had to retire early because of glaucoma, not his fault, but he did not take it well. He had issues starting before that morning as well too. He cheated on his wife their entire marriage; he was abusive; and he reportedly felt weighed down and annoyed at times by his obligations to the community. Kirby was not perfect. He was far from perfect. Eventually, this all came to light, and Kirby retreated into his own private domain. He no longer worked with the Twins or came to spring training. He stayed home in Scottsdale, AZ, avoiding the spotlight.
And then he suffered a stroke. And then he died.
My feelings about Kirby are so conflicted. I think he did do good things as a person, but right along with the bad things he did. It's complicated. He doesn't get a free pass, but there is no way I can just write him off. Kirby Puckett is the reason I fell in love with baseball. He was my favorite baseball player. He is my favorite baseball player. He will always be my favorite baseball player, because nothing will ever replace those moments of my childhood, sharing the sheer joy with my parents over the Twins being World Series Champions.
Life is complicated.
But there is one other thing I'd like to share:
Kirby Puckett's last public interview was on January 30th, 2006, with Larry Fitzgerald of Minneapolis-St. Paul area radio station 89.9 KMOJ. The interview included this exchange:
Larry Fitzgerald: Do you think the Twins will get a new stadium anytime soon?
Kirby Puckett: Not in my lifetime.
Less than two months later Kirby was gone; and less than two months after that, the Twins were slated to receive a new stadium.
I remember on opening day, April 12th, 2010, standing outside of Gate 3 at Target Field and seeing a man there. He clearly didn't have a ticket, but he had a huge, home-made sign that he was sitting in front of. It read, "Welcome to Kirby Puckett Field."
What are your memories of Kirby Puckett?