On March 6, 2006, Kirby Puckett passed away. It was very sudden—a stroke—making Kirby the second-youngest Hall of Fame player to die after being inducted. Only Lou Gehrig and his battle with ALS preceded Puck.
Growing up, #34 is what sparked my interest in Major League Baseball. The phrase I like to use is “before I knew what baseball was, I knew Kirby Puckett”. Despite being only a toddler or grade-school lad for most of his career, the iconic moments with bat, glove, and even that catchy intro (thank you Bob Casey!) rendered him larger-than-life.
So, when I heard the news of his death, it hit me pretty hard. My entry-point into Twins baseball was no longer with us. Making matters worse? After his sudden 1996 retirement due to glaucoma, Puckett experienced some hard times in the court of public opinion. Though not found guilty of any crime, it became clear to many Minnesotans that Kirby was not a deity. He was flesh-and-blood—with the corresponding weaknesses and faults—like everyone else. As a result, Kirby somewhat withdrew from the Twins franchise and moved to Arizona. I have no doubt that eventually time would have healed many of those wounds, but unfortunately there wasn’t quite enough of it.
Six days after Kirby’s death, a memorial service was scheduled at his baseball home—the Metrodome. I seriously considered making the three-hour drive from my hometown to attend, but an impending blizzard persuaded me to tune in on TV instead.
I held it together pretty well even as a Puckett highlight reel played and former teammates, coaches, and general baseball acquaintances of Kirby spoke about his life and legacy.
But at one point, with a #34 jersey positioned out in Kirby’s traditional center field roaming grounds, a solo trumpet rendition of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” began to play its haunting tune...
That’s when I lost it. I wept. Amidst the childhood memories of waving my Homer Hanky and seeing that stout little bowling-ball of a man—with the perpetual smile and energy—perform incredible feats in between the white lines, I was also incredibly saddened that he was not able to experience such love and support while still with us.
To this day, whenever a team reunion or function takes place that Kirby could/would have attended, I feel a little sad. I miss seeing him walk onto the field with names like Blyleven, Gladden, Hrbek, and the others who brought baseball championships to Minnesota. Yet, no matter which family member or figure serves as Puck’s place-holder at such events, when Kirby is announced his name gets the biggest ovation of them all.
Without Kirby Puckett in a Minnesota Twins uniform, I’m not sure I become the rabid baseball or Twins fan I am today. That legacy—which I’m sure is shared by thousands of fellow Twins fans—is pretty spectacular in and of itself.