(Author’s Note: This post was written before Royce Lewis exited last Tuesday night’s contest with multiple ailments. His postseason status is now TBD. But I think the piece is still important for two reasons: 1. What Lewis has accomplished the last two months is truly special; and 2. If the worst case scenario transpires, this post can stand as a reminder of another Minnesota sports kick in the nether regions)
There’s a generation of Minnesota Twins fans—those born in the early 1980s or before—that experienced the brilliance of Kirby Puckett. Not only was Puck a Hall of Fame talent, but his natural leadership was equally special—a combination few athletes possess. There’s a reason why #34 occupies the George Washington position on the Twins’ Mt. Rushmore.
But there’s also a generation of Twins fans—those born in the mid-1980s or later—that have never experienced such a unique melding of top-tier talent and leadership. Take me, a 1985 kid—my only specific, photo-realistic memory of Kirby comes from 1995 sitting in those weirdo right field Metrodome seats and glimpsing him beneath me (Puck having been moved to corner OF at that point). Sure, I saw him receive his Silver Slugger Award at my first in-person baseball game in 1990 and was part of that wondrous 1991 Twins/A’s series—but those moments are as much amalgamated family stories & lore. Me being 5/6 years old, the retrievable constructs in my brain are understandably fuzzy.
Then, Kirby’s eye tragedy struck and he was out of baseball before 1996—the year I started following baseball on a day-to-day basis. One could say I never experienced the full glory of Puckett from a truly baseball-focused lens.
There have, of course, been others to try and measure up to Kirby since his retirement—but all have fallen a bit short in key capacities.
A few examples…
- The likes of Torii Hunter, Doug Mientkiewicz, Brad Radke, & Corey Koskie meshed well in the early-to-mid 2000s—but even at the time most fans realized those Ron Gardenhire squads were “greater than the sum of their parts”. In other words, no specific player—with the possible exception of Johan Santana—had enough singular talent to be mentioned in the same breath as Puckett.
- The Joe Mauer & Justin Morneau reign saw the M&M Boys perform Kirby-esque feats on the diamond—yet Mauer’s unassuming nature and Morneau’s Canadian stoicism did not lend themselves to “jump on my back, boys!” moments.
- When Byron Buxton debuted in 2015 and blossomed in 2017, it seemed Puckett’s heir apparent had been crowned. Buck & Puck shared CF positioning and unique, top-notch power/speed. Both also possessed that innate, un-quantifiable quality of making the rest of the team better seemingly by presence alone. The problem? Kirby’s lowest full season games total—137—roughly equals Byron’s high water mark of 140. While the talents and leadership might be comparable, it is impossible to be a true franchise bastion when on the bench as much as under the blue sky.
Not to take anything away from the above players, but Twins fans of my (and subsequent) vintage have not had a Puckett-like figure to marvel at—until now.
Since the start of August, one could argue that Royce Lewis has been the best hitter in baseball. For the season (231 PA), his numbers sit at 14 HR, 51 RBI, 6 SB, .310 BA, .915 OPS, & 148 OPS+. He’s second on the team in RBI behind Correa and Kepler—each with 300 & 200 more PAs, respectively. He recently bested a Don Mattingly mark of most grand slams (four) in a short span. Seemingly every time he comes up in a clutch situation, he has ice in his veins, ala his “big hit” celebration.
I’m not saying that Lewis will be “the next Kirby Puckett”—a lot would have to break right to reach that milestone in this state. Lewis’s own early-career injury concerns—albeit more of the freak and less of the chronic variety—mirror Buxton’s. But in terms of the combo platter of talent and enthusiasm, he’s the closest the Twins franchise has gotten to #34 since that sorrowful Spring Training of ‘96.
As the Twins grind their way to a division championship and playoff berth, the sight of the team’s best hitter batting third and coming through in every clutch situation may conjure visions—however fuzzy—of ultimate playoff successes of yore.