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Kirby Puckett, tragic hero

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His challenging legacy demonstrates a classic literary construct

Minnesota Twins v New York Yankees

Like many of you, Kirby Puckett was my childhood baseball hero. I’ve probably told this story before. I do not mean this say he was a good person—some of the things that later came out about his personal life are abhorrent, but his legacy is complicated. Had events become public knowledge during his playing career, things would likely have been different, but as it stands now, many of us attempt to balance the ballplayer we idolized with a man who committed acts we deplore. As always, the real story is deeper. The common thread though— Puckett was a man who was cut down at his peak.

The classic tragic hero goes back to the days of the ancient Greeks. He or she is someone who demonstrates strength in the face of adversity, but is brought low by a fatal flaw, and for who the audience feels fear and pity. Your typical tragic hero arc unfolds with a hero who is brought down by hubris, suffers a reversal of fate, and faces an unavoidable punishment, at which point the audience feels both pity and disgust. If this doesn’t describe Puckett, I don’t know what does.

To begin with, Puckett was a funny shape for a ball-player. He was short and round, yet made spectacular defensive plays in the outfield. Without Byron Buxton’s speed or Torii Hunter’s athleticism, he anchored the Twins outfield for better than a decade. He drew a number of Rookie of the Year votes in 1984, finishing third. Nearly every season after that, he would draw MVP votes, and every season after his sophomore campaign he was elected to the All-Star game. Suffice it to say, he was a very good player on the diamond. Before he even got to the majors, though, he was already filling out the story of a classic tragic hero.

He would remain a hero until 2002, when we discovered that maybe you shouldn’t have sports idols, and his role shifted to that of a more typical anti-hero.

Puckett came by the humble beginnings story honestly. He grew up in the projects on the south side of Chicago—and as Jim Croce said “The south side of Chicago is the baddest part of town.” Puckett’s childhood was spent in the Robert Taylor Homes, which suffered many of the issues that plagued the more famous Cabrini Green. Here is a Wikipedia summary of the issues plaguing the area:

Planned for 11,000 inhabitants, the Robert Taylor Homes housed up to a peak of 27,000 people.[6] Six of the poorest US census areas with populations above 2,500 were found there.[7] Including children who are not of working age, at one point 95 percent of the housing development’s 27,000 residents were unemployed and listed public assistance as their only income source,[8] and 40 percent of the households were single-parent, female-headed households earning less than $5,000 per year. About 96 percent were African-American. The drab, concrete high-rises, many blackened with the scars of arson fire, sat in a narrow stretch of slum. The city’s neglect was evident in littered streets, poorly enforced building codes and scant commercial or civic amenities. Aside from neglect and ignoring crime, police officers also felt unsafe in darkened hallways and were frequently shot at from the high rises.[9] In the Robert Taylor Homes a survey was conducted and showed that the majority of residents either had a family member in prison or expected one to return from prison within two years. This caused issues when residents tried to relocate; many of these returning prisoners had partners, children and/or mental illnesses that prevented them from relocating to another residence.

In no way does this paint a pretty picture of where Kirby Puckett came from. That being said, in some ways, Puckett could be counted among the lucky. He knew the love of two parents, although his father was not around much, due to working two jobs to support the family, according to a 1991 interview. While his father was working, his mother, Catherine Puckett, raised nine kids in a three-room apartment.

Still, Puckett managed to escape this situation—thanks to his father’s hard work, the family was able to move to a somewhat better neighborhood when he was in his teen years, and he earned a baseball scholarship that sent him downstate, to Peoria’s Bradley University. Just as the first escape was becoming reality, tragedy struck the Puckett family. Three weeks into Kirby’s first year in college, his father passed away due to a sudden heart attack. Kirby took several weeks off school and fell behind, and only returned to college at his mother’s insistence, although transferring to Triton College, much closer to his family.

Given the adversity he came from, and his indomitable good nature—and famous smile—its already easy to cheer for Puckett. He was drafted by the Twins in 1982, and after tearing up both the Appalachian League and the single-A California League in the next couple years, began 1984 in Triple-A. Only 21 games later, he made his MLB debut. As a rookie, he hit .298/.320/.336 in 128 games.

Things only got better, on the diamond, for Puckett. As mentioned above, he collected a number of individual accolades, and the team won two World Series titles with him in center field. In 1987, he hit .357/.419/.464 in seven games as the Twins topped the Cardinals to take the title. In 1991, his heroics in game six are legendary, and propelled him into being quite possibly the most popular man in Minnesota in the early nineties.

In the midst of this run of on-field success, his family saw both joy and sadness, as families do. In 1986, he married Tonya Hudson. They adopted two children, Catherine (named for Kirby’s mother,) and Kirby Jr. Those were the good—the bad was the passing of Puckett’s mother in 1989 from heart failure, and his younger sister’s need for a kidney transplant.

1996 saw the most cruel and tragic chapter to date, at least for fans, unfold. One day during spring training, Puckett woke up and could not see out of his right eye. The diagnosis was Glaucoma, which Puckett’s father also suffered from, although the elder Puckett lost vision gradually. After waking up partially blind on March 26, Kirby was placed on (what was then called) the disabled list, and underwent three surgeries which could not restore his vision. He would never play another professional game of baseball. The 35-year old superstar retired on July 12th of the same year.

The Twins retired Puckett’s #34 in 1997. He won community service awards throughout his career, and in 2001 he was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. If his story ended here, I would consider him one of the great heroes of our time. Unfortunately, there is another, darker chapter to his legacy.

Beginning in December of 2001, the public became aware of a dark side to Kirby Puckett. The man who was known for his good nature, his smile, and his community service wasn’t the only side of Kirby Puckett. It began with a police report, filed by his wife Tonya. She accused him of abuse and threats against her life. Although charges were not brought against Puckett, the couple was quickly divorced afterward among accusations of Kirby’s infidelity, and the heel turn continued.

A Sports Illustrated story from 2003 entitled “The Rise and Fall of Kirby Puckett” details much of the deplorable behavior he was accused of (and if you’re not familiar, please read it, a better author than I tells much of the good and bad of his story.) One downside, the SI story seems to dodge blaming him for his actions—implying that they were the result of having his career stripped away during its prime. Perhaps today, with our increased focus on mental health, he may have found a better outlet. More importantly, today, we have to believe someone would have spoken up or intervened before things went as far as they did.

Puckett’s fall, however, was complete with criminal charges, and although he was later found not guilty, the damage to his reputation had been done. Puckett was accused of holding a woman against her will in a restaurant bathroom and groping her. He was indicted for false imprisonment and criminal sexual assault. A jury eventually cleared Puckett, and the comments section of this article are not the place to re-litigate his case. After his trial, Puckett withdrew to Arizona, with his fiancee and her son.

I’m not a mental health professional, but if we heard about these actions from a friend, these days, we would be concerned. Puckett’s friends were reportedly concerned as well, as his weight went up and he crossed 300 pounds.

In 2006, Kirby Puckett passed away, a man with a confusing legacy. He was felled by a massive hemorrhagic stroke on March 5th, and emergency surgery was unable to relieve the pressure on his brain. Friends, teammates, and his children rushed to his bedside, and he died on the following day.

The legacy of Kirby Puckett is difficult to decipher. He was scheduled to be married in just a few months after his passing. Perhaps that could have been a turning point in his life, at just 45 years old, he could have redefined himself and changed how we forever remember him.

As it is, he is the hero that came from humble origins, that rose to the highest peaks of popularity, and was cut down in his prime. He was the villian that tumbled into darkeness and showed us a side of himself that we didn’t want to believe could exist. All-in-all, he is the archetype of a tragic hero. Minnesota fans cried tears of joy with him during championships in 1987 and 1991. They cried for his career in 1996. They cried for the demise of innocence in 2002, and they cried for the passing of an icon in 2006. When we talk about Twins moments that made you cry, many of them likely involve Kirby Puckett.