Kirby Puckett passed away eleven years ago today. As a giant Puckett fan, I remember the day pretty clearly. I’ve written about it before.
Kirby was clearly a special individual. Many people have their own stories about him. I wanted to gather and share a lot of these stories here today.
However, while I do this, I also want to acknowledge Kirby was very, very far from a perfect individual. He did some awful things. We can’t ignore that. I think a lot of Twins fans, including myself, still grapple with that dichotomy.
But Kirby Puckett is dead. He died pretty young too, as far as deaths go. He was the second youngest living member of the baseball Hall of Fame to die, after Lou Gehrig. Kirby met his maker. Maybe it was for a reason.
In any case, here is a collection of all of my favorite Kirby Puckett stories that I could possibly find. Feel free to share any you have yourself in the comments.
Joe Maddon, current Cubs manager, on his first impressions:
"I scouted him when he was at Triton Junior College in '82 or '83. ... He had an unusual body type for a baseball player. But ran so well, threw so well, and hit line drives all over the place. And I was the only Angels scout who turned him in for the draft that year. He was very impressive. And then I got to meet him just a little bit. The guy was just always full of energy and life.”
The Chicago Tribune, on Kirby Puckett getting his call to the majors:
One night in Anaheim, Puckett and I spoke of his first big-league game, which he had played in this park. He had to travel from Old Orchard, Maine, to Anaheim in one day. The flight landed hours late.
Innocent as a lamb, Puckett had $10 in his pocket. He took a taxi and saw the fare climb upward of $60. He asked his Japanese taxi driver to keep his suitcase while he ran into the stadium to borrow some cash.
"You can take it out of my meal money," Kirby told an Angels official, who assured him the team could spare it.
I’ve heard several version of this story, Kirby taking a taxi to the ballpark and having to find fare in the clubhouse. He didn’t actually play that night, but of course, Kirby went on to have four hits in his major league debut the next night.
Legendary Minnesota Bob Casey, on the birth of his classic introduction of Kirby Puckett:
Bob Casey has missed three home games in 41 seasons as the public-address announcer for the Minnesota Twins. Each time, it was to attend a son's college graduation.
This weekend [in 2001], Casey, 76, will miss the Twins' three home games with Kansas City because he will be in Cooperstown, N.Y., delivering the Hall of Fame induction speech for Twins outfielder Kirby Puckett.
Make that "Kirby-y-y-y-y-y Puckett."
That's how Casey announced Puckett when he played in the Metrodome. It is one of baseball's most legendary introductions, and it started in 1984, Puckett's rookie season. Casey "did it sort of by accident" before a Puckett at-bat vs. Toronto's Dave Stieb.
Casey wasn't sure Puckett liked it. Puckett doubled, scored and ran by Casey's booth behind home plate. "I thought he was going to hit me over the head. Then he said, 'Don't ever quit doing that. It's the greatest.'"
Cal Ripken Jr., on a pre-game conversation:
"We learned very quickly that when Kirby gets on a roll, you don't interrupt him. He told us how proud he was to play with the Twins, how he wasn't going to let this opportunity slip away, and this conversation, pretty much a one way conversation took about 15 minutes. And when Kirby finally decided to walk away, he had deprived us of our necessary batting practice swings, and Eddie [Murray] looked at me and said, ‘Is this guy for real?’”
George Bell, former Blue Jay:
"I have a lot of good memories about Kirby. When he used to get a base hit, he'd throw his bat and it'd be flying all over the field. He was a unique player. We need some more players in this age and time coming in the big leagues that play like Kirby."
Al Newman, on being traveling roommates with Kirby Puckett:
“Back when baseball players still had roommates, Kirby and I were roommates. There was a lot of laughter in there. But what I remember more than anything, and I still chuckle about it, is how I would fall asleep waiting for my turn to talk... so many nights. It was like, ‘Okay, when’s it my turn to talk?’”
Roy Smalley, on inviting Kirby to his house warming party in 1985:
“I got traded back here [to the Minnesota Twins] in the spring on 1985, and we had had a lot here in the Twin Cities that we were going to build a house on [before I was traded to New York in ‘82]. I was here for four games, we started the planning with the architect, and then I got traded to New York.
“But we kept the lot. So when I came back here in ‘85, we went ahead and built the house. We had a house warming party for Christmas that off-season. We just decided to have a big party to celebrate the fact we’re back here in Minnesota and we’ve got the house. We said black tie, optional—but guys were great! They showed up tuxes and everything, and it was really fun.
“Well, Puck—how long had he been in the big leagues? ‘84? ‘85? Two years. He came in, one of the last people to show up, and he had gone out and rented a tux. He came over to me, and he says, ‘Smalls! What are you trying to do to me, man? What are you trying to do to me, Smalls!’ I said, ‘What, what are you talking about?’ And he says, ‘Puck can’t wear no tux! Look at this!’ Well, his tux had a vent in the back, right? And he turned around with the big Puck booty, and the vent, it was like going out this way. It was a big league vent!”
Sports broadcaster Bob Costas, on naming his son after Kirby:
“During spring training in 1986, I was having lunch with Kirby [Puckett] and Tonya, who was then his fiancee. My wife was pregnant, and he asked if we had a name picked out. We said we didn’t. Then he asked if we knew if it was going to be a boy or a girl, and we said we weren’t planning to know that until the birth. He said, ‘Well, how about ‘Kirby’? That works for a boy or a girl!’
I jokingly said, ‘I’ll tell you what. If you’re hitting .350 by the time this baby is born, we’ll name him or her after you.’ As it turns out, he was hitting .372. My wife wouldn’t really go for Kirby; she had her heart set on Keith, which is her younger brother’s name. So we went with two middle names, and Kirby became the second middle name. But that is his legal, honest-to-gosh name: Keith Michael Kirby Costas.”
In another version of this story, Costas had forgotten his promise to Kirby, prompting Kirby to call him up, ask what the hell happened, and Costas to add the name as a second middle name.
Kent Hrbek, on when closer Ron Davis was traded in 1986:
“When RD was traded to the Cubs, I don’t think we reacted too well. The charter flight from California to Seattle turned into a party. People got a little goofy. Puck kind of started it by singing ‘Jimmy Crack Corn’ as he got on the bus to the airport. And the singing continued most of the flight to Seattle. Puck went nuts with it. People started laughing at Puck, and when Puck got the floor, he didn’t give up. Harmon Killebrew, who was a TV analyst at the time, said it was the most bizarre thing he’d ever seen in baseball. He said it was like the team had been exorcised of a demon.”
Al Newman, on cooking out with Kirby’s family:
“The 10-for-11 series in Milwaukee [in 1987]... I just remember he took me over to his sister’s house—he’s got family in Milwaukee—and we had a barbecue. And remember the commercial saying, ‘Where’s the beef?’ The little old lady would say, ‘WHERE’S THE BEEF!?’ Kirby had this apron on that day... [laughter]. Anyway, he went 6-for-6 that one game.
“It was a great story. You just had to see the apron.”
Andy MacPhail, former Twins GM:
"After we won in '87, we opened one of those souvenir stores in a ritzy galleria. It had a glass door with the big Twins logo. I remember looking at the line to get in and there was a 5-year-old girl looking to get in and she touched the logo and said, 'Kirby Puckett.'"
Kent Hrbek, on hitting behind Kirby:
“I batted fourth a lot, following Puck. Puck hit third, I hit fourth for many years behind Puck. I always remember walking up to home plate after Puck had hit a ball that was two feet outside for a line drive to right field, or one that was over his head. Every time I walked up the catcher was saying, ‘How the HELL did he hit that pitch!?’
“I’d just tell him, I’d be digging in, getting ready, ‘That’s Puck. We see that all the time.’ He never looked for a strike, he just looked for the baseball and swung. From day one, the catchers were always up there shaking their heads. It was just something I saw standing in the on-deck circle behind him all those years.”
Don Mattingly, on Kirby giving him his nickname:
Mattingly was with the New York Yankees and Puckett with Minnesota when the two would help [Kenny] Kaiser, a longtime AL umpire, raise money.
“Kenny had a pretty good group of guys – you know, I’ve seen Nolan (Ryan) there, George Brett, (Mark) McGwire, Kirby, Jimmy Leyland, (Don) Zimmer – just a ton of guys would go. He’d have 10 guys every year,” Mattingly recalled. “And Kirby got it started while we were just kind of hanging around the suite, and you know the way Kirby gets going and gets talking, talking about ‘baseball, baseball, Donnie Baseball, baseball.’ I don’t know how it stuck.
“There are a lot of worse things to be called, so it’s all right,” he said.
Kent Hrbek, on fishing:
“Kirby Puckett liked to fish, and the thing about Puck is that any fish that landed in his boat ended up in his live well, destined for his dinner plate. Puck was one of those guys who kept every fish he caught.”
Ron Shapiro, Kirby’s agent, on what made Kirby special:
“I remember, you know, before game five of the [1991 World Series], the Twins were down, and it looked dismal. They were in Atlanta. I walked into a hotel with my partner, Michael Moss(ph), and everybody was just down in the dumps. Except there was this one table where Kirby Puckett sat with his family. And Michael and I walked over to the table, we sat down, and Kirby looked up with a big, bright smile and he said, ‘Don't you all worry. I'm going to put this team on my back, and we're going to win this thing.’
“And, of course, you know, game six, the home run, the catch, I mean, you know, people would hit balls that looked like they were going into the night, and then Kirby would jump up into the night. So, not only did he hit home runs, he pulled balls back into the ballpark, and he almost single-handedly won that series for the Twins.”
Kent Hrbek, on Kirby’s “I’ll carry you on my back” talk:
“One of the stories you hear over and over about Puck is how he told his teammates before Game 6 of the 1991 World Series to jump on his back, that he was driving the bus tonight. Well, Puck said that before every game he ever played. Every time he left the clubhouse he said, ‘Jump on my back. I’m driving the bus tonight.’ We used to laugh at that.
“Randy Bush would check the lineup card, see that [Kirby’s] name wasn’t on it and yell out, ‘Jump on my back tonight, guys. I’m driving the bus.’ I’d say, ‘I don’t want anyone on my back tonight, because I’m too fat and I’m too sore.’ We’d all laugh at that stuff, including Puck. But then it became part of Puck’s legend. And Puck didn’t mind being legendary.”
Kirby Puckett, watching Mark McGwire in the home run derby:
Randy Bush, former teammate:
"He treated everybody as an equal. When we traveled and went into a visiting clubhouse, Kirby knew every clubhouse person, every clubhouse staff member by name. He called every one of them by name. It was as impressive as anything to me, and said a lot about what type of man he was. How many players walk in and say, 'Hey, kid, get me a cup of coffee?' He knew every one by name, knew something about their family. That's how he treated everybody. He's just a tremendous person.
"I've never seen anybody who loved to play the game, who loved to work at the game more than Kirby Puckett. I think a large part of him was lost that day [the game] was taken away from him. I can't imagine how he was able to come to terms with that. Kirby just woke up one day in Spring Training with a little blurry vision and never played again because he had glaucoma. There was no gradual decline of his skills, there was no emotional, 'Well, it's coming to the end for him.' It was all of a sudden done. I'm not sure he was ever able to come to terms to that. I don't know if anybody could."
Mike Cameron, former MLB player, on visiting Minnesota as a young player:
"He always called me 'Young Stud.' I wasn't playing much when I came up with the White Sox. I'd just watch him. When I was with the White Sox, every time we'd go to Minnesota -- and we went a lot -- he'd take me and Frank Thomas to dinner. He had his own table in a restaurant. That city loved him. We all loved Kirby."
Eddie Guardado, on fishing:
“My first fishing partner [in Minnesota] was Puck,” Guardado said. “First time we went, he said, ‘Meet me at 5 a.m. at Perkins.’ I figured, ‘There’s no way Puck is going to be there at 5 o’clock,’ but he was waiting for me, eating a cheeseburger.”
LaTroy Hawkins, on suit shopping:
In April 1996, Hawkins was a rookie for the Minnesota Twins, trying to find his way in the game. He’d gotten a cup of coffee in the majors the year before, getting torched for 29 runs in 27 innings. Things went a little better at the beginning of ’96, with Hawkins shaking off a 1.1-inning, four-run disaster against the Red Sox and rebounding with a 10-strikeout gem against the Tigers two days later. A road trip to New York followed, at which point Puckett took Hawkins shopping.
“We went to PortaBella, this nice suit place,” Hawkins recalled in a recent sit-down interview. “‘Pick out a couple of suits, I got this!’ he said. It was something I never forgot. Somebody did it for me, so I wanted to pay it forward until infinity.”
Hawkins has kept his word. During his time with 10 MLB franchises, Hawkins has established a routine that’s lasted from those early years in Minnesota all the way to his current gig with Colorado, in which he strives to make the transition easier and more enjoyable for young players.
Jacque Jones, on Puckett’s presence:
"The clubhouse was alive when he walked in. I shouldn't say walk in, because he was there before everybody else. It was just amazing. That Game 6 [of the 1991 World Series]—every day he would put his whole team on his back: 'Hop on, boys.' That was his favorite line—hop on. 'Puck will take care of you.'
"My career—my career is dedicated to him, that's how much he meant to me.”
Doug Mientkiewicz, on Kirby’s impact on The Band from 2002:
"Everyday people don't understand what he did for everybody and anybody who wore a Twins jersey. That whole group I came up with—with (Corey) Koskie, (Jacque) Jones, (Torii) Hunter and (A.J.) Pierzynski, the list goes on and on—he was there every year in Spring Training and you could call him anytime of the day and he'd stop what he was doing to help you out."
David Ortiz, on how and why Kirby Puckett was his favorite player:
Because his previous number, 27, was already retired in Boston, David Ortiz took number 34 there in honor of Kirby Puckett. Ortiz’s number 34 will be retired this year.
Wayne Krivsky, former front office dude, on sharing an office:
"I had some interaction with him [back in the late ‘90s] because we shared an office," Krivsky said. "We had some fun and some laughs together. He'd answer my phone 'Wayne Krivsky's office.' He'd call me 'Kriv.'
"My wife got to talk with him several times and she couldn't believe she was talking to Kirby Puckett. They had a lot of laughs on the phone together. ... He'd join us for lunch in Fort Myers[, Fla.]. Whenever it was Kirby's day to buy, it was a big day for lunch. He'd cater in these great meals -- three-course meals. You didn't need to eat dinner on days Kirby was buying. It was really neat and a lot of fun."
Al Kaline, Tigers Hall of Famer:
"At the Hall of Fame, we'd all go downstairs and there's a little lounge down there. And Kirby would get the microphone and start singing, and everybody else would start singing. He was just one of those kind of guys that brought out a lot of fun. ... There's only a few guys I really enjoyed watching play—George Brett was one, Kirby Puckett and Travis Fryman. When you're a great teammate with a stature that he had, the respect players had for him, and what he gave to the other players, you don't see that very often."
Eddie Guardado, on hearing Kirby was in the hospital:
"I told (Twins clubbie and Puckett buddy) Clayton (Wilson) to tell Kirby that I loved him and that he taught me a lot about life, and Clayton told him (at the hospital on Sunday), so that was special. ... It's really sad. It's a great person we lost. They always take the good ones quick. ... He always used to say, 'In this game, things you can't control, don't worry about them.' I try to pass it on now. That's what I do and that's what I stress to these guys in here. This guy was my idol in the game."
Danny Gladden, on last seeing Kirby:
March 6, 2006, was the last time Gladden saw Kirby Puckett.
He was in Puckett’s room with Chili Davis, another former teammate, and Ken Griffey Jr., and Chili’s brother, a pastor, in the critical care unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix.
“We grabbed Puck’s hand, we told him we loved him, and Chili’s brother offered a great message of prayer,’’ Gladden said. “A few minutes later, they took Puck off life support.’’
Wally Backman, former teammate:
"I used to say Tony Oliva had one job -- throw early [batting practice] to Kirby. He took it every day. It didn't seem good when they said he had surgery. But you didn't think he was going to die."
Jim Leyland, talking to his Tigers team after Kirby’s death:
"It breaks your heart. I talked to my team about it today. When you have all the hardware on the mantle and you've got all the postseason checks and you've got a World Series ring and you've got all that stuff, for every player I think ultimately when you look in the mirror at the end of your career, you ask yourself, 'Was I a good teammate?'
“Kirby Puckett was the ultimate. That's what everybody said about Kirby Puckett. I told my guys today at the meeting rather than mourn Kirby's passing, I want everybody to shake hands with the guy standing next to him and ask themselves if they're a good teammate."
Charlie Manuel, long-time MLB player and manager, on Kirby’s death:
"That kind of crushed me," Manuel said. "I didn't realize it was that bad. He was my favorite player. He was everything I thought a player should be."
Tony Oliva, on being Kirby’s batting coach:
"I almost break down too when I heard the news yesterday but I tried to hold it in. It's a really tough situation. It's a really hard day, really hard day for all of us. ... Kirby meant to me a lot. For me, it's like my own son. He used to call me Papa, too."