Kirby and Joe: A tale of two favorites

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Joe Mauer has made his retirement official and it has me reflecting on favorite ballplayers and how our relationships with them change as we age.

When I was 14, Kirby Puckett woke up one morning and saw spots in his right eye. A few months later, in July of 1996, the announcement came that the blindness had only gotten worse and was permanent. Kirby was retiring after 12 years of being a Minnesota Twin -- more or less literally for as long as I could remember at that point. He was the face of the franchise, the hero who had brought Minnesota not one, but two World Series championships. His catch and home run in game 6 were iconic. Every kid, including me, copied that catch -- leaping up with our backs to a wall and reaching over head to snag the ball and save the game.

That day in July, I was at my grandmother's house during my annual weeklong visit. I remember my dad calling and telling us the news, and then we flipped on the television to confirm it. The whole idea of Kirby not playing baseball anymore was unfathomable to me and I began to feel sick to my stomach. I ran off to the bathroom and began to sob while staring at my grandmother's hideous floral wallpaper. It wasn't fair -- it just wasn't fair!

I convinced my parents to save every newspaper that mentioned Kirby and celebrated his playing days. I think this stack of papers is still at my parents' house somewhere. I wanted so desperately to hold on to Kirby the ballplayer and not let the inevitable Kirby-less Twins become reality. I think my dad would tell you that I was more than a little nuts about it.

My uncle tried to console me that weekend by telling me that he knew how I felt because he had gone through the same thing when Tony Oliva had to retire due to knee injuries. I recall snapping at him that it wasn't the same because… well, I don't remember why I insisted that it wasn't the same, other than I was 14 at the time and 14 year olds can be kind of irrational.

The truth is, it probably was similar. Our childhood baseball heroes are these mythical larger than life figures. They're entangled into our earliest memories of baseball, which, at least for some of us, are also our earliest memories period. If you luck out, like both my uncle and I did, you get a hero who plays for your favorite team and never wears another uniform. He becomes yours.

Kirby could do no wrong in Minnesota. He hit home runs and doubles and made fantastic plays in the outfield. He signed autographs and posed for pictures with fans. He was who we all wanted to be. And according to the media, he was just as wonderful off the field. Bob Costas named his kid after Kirby. He was practically a god.

Except, of course, he wasn't.

Those stories came out after I went to college across the country. Kirby had assaulted a woman in a restaurant bathroom. He had many times abused his wife… and his long time mistress, who the public had never known about before. He was not the hero we all thought he was. In fact, he was kind of a dirtbag.

I was gutted all over again, but this time I was mostly angry. Angry at Kirby for deceiving us and mostly angry at myself for still having all these feelings of fondness for Kirby the ballplayer, despite the fact that I knew that Kirby the man wasn't all that wonderful. For a few years there, I did what most of Minnesota did -- I kind of just pretended that Kirby didn't exist. Conflict avoidance is a prominent feature of Minnesota culture, and we peaked with Kirby. You don't have to deal with your uncomfortable feelings if you don't acknowledge them.

Then Kirby died a few years later, tragically young of a stroke. He was living in Arizona. The Twins had more or less broken ties with him, and by most accounts, after some years of depression, he had started to turn his life around with a new fiancé. But now he was dead.

I cried again, this time in my own apartment during graduate school. I played audio of Bob Casey's iconic voice announcing his at bats: "Batting third, number 34, center fielder Kirbyyyyyyyyyy Puckett!" It turns out, even though I thought I had dismissed him for bad behavior, I still kind of loved the ballplayer. And now that the man was dead, all that was left was the legend anyway. It was like it was safe to be a fan of Kirby again because we didn't have to confront all the ugly stuff. Score one for conflict avoidance -- we had outlived the problem. Truth be told, to this day I've never really grappled with the reality of Kirby Puckett the man, which is more than a little uncomfortable in the era of #metoo.

After Puckett's death, I told myself I would never let myself be emotionally attached to another ballplayer again. The Kirby roller coaster was too much. And besides which, there would never be another ballplayer as entangled in my youth as Kirby anyway.

But I made this declaration a little too late, because Joe Mauer was already on the scene at this point.

Things were different with Joe though. Whereas Kirby had always been there, Joe had to come from somewhere. And that somewhere was St. Paul. Years before he was drafted by the Twins, I, and the rest of Minnesota, already knew who he was as the golden boy of Minnesota high school sports. During my senior year of high school at Wayzata, we played an away game at Cretin-Durham Hall. Even though the pep band was off that night, and I thus had no obligation to be there, my dad thought we should drive down anyway to watch this junior who was the Cretin QB that was in all the papers.

That junior was Joe Mauer and he was the best high school quarterback I have ever seen. I don't remember the exact score, but we lost by a lot and Mauer threw multiple long touchdown passes. And rumor had it, he was a better baseball player than he was a football player.

I was in awe, but not the same way I had been with Kirby. Joe wasn't a god or a hero. He was almost a peer (not that I ever met him -- although I have two different friends who claim to have a friend who knew him), but a peer who was much much better at sports than anyone else. (And the competitive part of me noted that Wayzata did beat Cretin at math team, which was where I shone as captain, so Joe and I were basically the same.)

When Joe signed with the Twins in the first round of the 2001 draft, it weirdly just seemed expected. He was one of us. He was always going to be one of us. He might as well play for us.

And oh how he played for us. He might have even been better than Kirby. He didn't win any championships, but he won a lot of batting titles and an MVP award -- Kirby never did that -- and he did it while playing catcher, the most demanding defensive position. His playoff heroics were dashed by blind umpires -- Phil Cuzzi, that ball was fair and everyone knows it -- but it almost didn't matter.

Joe took a lot of crap for being boring and bland. He did a milk commercial with his mother. He married the girl next door (and then had twins, because of course). All of his interviews seemed rehearsed and cautious about sharing anything approaching honest emotion. But after Kirby, boring and bland didn't seem all that bad. Besides, he was one of us… and Minnesotans are nothing if not mostly kind of boring and bland. (Except Prince, may he rest in peace.)

And yet, Joe was never a god to me the way Kirby was. I was too old for that now. And besides, he was still kind of a peer (I mean, if I'm being delusional, maybe). When my grandpa would write me letters telling me that I needed to settle down and get married, I told him I was going to marry Joe and that seemed believable enough because we were the same age. [I never could tell if my grandpa had a slyer sense of humor than I thought, or if he really did believe me. In any event, he let up on the marriage talk until it hit the news that Joe really was getting married… to a woman who wasn't me. Then I got note from my grandpa asking when we had broken up.]

But even though he hadn't reached the same pantheonic status in my mind as Puckett once had, I still found myself emotionally attached to Mauer's career. [And not just because we were allegedly engaged.] His picture hung up in my office when I worked in Boston (as part of a Twins calendar) and I declared to everyone who would listen that the Red Sox couldn't have him. (And they didn't -- he signed his giant contract with the Twins instead.) When a concussion took him out of the game for awhile and forced him to stop catching, I felt a familiar lump… and not too long after, I got my own sports-related concussion. [I slipped on the ice during the quarterfinals of curling arena nationals and then passed out. Just like in high school, Joe and I were basically the same.]

When the Twins came through Oakland this September, I gave Joe a standing ovation after his last at bat. I was the only one standing, as the fans in Oakland didn't seem to know that they were watching the end of an era. But I knew.

When Joe played what was clearly his last game earlier this fall, I found myself tearing up over a ballplayer one more time. (In a sign of the times, I was streaming the game on my phone in the middle of a restaurant.) But I wasn't crying because of the unjustness of my idol losing his vision. I was crying because if Joe was retiring, well, that meant that I had gotten old too. (Also, they were playing the music from The Natural and that's a cheap and easy way to get me to cry.) If Joe Mauer doesn't play baseball anymore, what am I going to have to give up soon? After all, Joe and I are basically the same.

More specifically, if Joe Mauer doesn't play baseball anymore, who is my favorite player now? Do I have one? Should I have one anymore?

Unless they re-sign Fernando Rodney, it seems likely that I'm going to be older than all of the Twins players next year, which is an unsettling revelation. Maybe one day another young rookie will start a long career for the Twins, destined for greatness, and this kid will be my favorite. Maybe this kid is already on the team. But then again, I don't live in Minnesota anymore and that's just going to be some kid -- not a god, not a peer, just some kid who happens to be good at baseball.

It's possible that this time, when I say that I'll never again be emotionally attached to a ballplayer, I mean it.

Cross-posting this from my own blog (because if I post it here, someone might actually read it).