Tuesday, March 07, 2006

A Baseball Great Passes

Kirby Puckett
March 14, 1960 - March 6, 2006

Years ago my grandfather took me to see the Minnesota Twins play. I was pretty young. Probably 10 or 11, and at that point preferred baseball to sleep, food, or soda pop in only the way that a young child could. Grandpa was a Minnesota native. He'd graduated from The U (as Minnesotans call it) with a degree in economics and been a perpetual Ph.D. student for years after that. He was a baseball fanatic, and while living in Washington, DC became a Senators fan. Then one day the Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins. Finally, his hometown had a team. Next to his wife, his family, and his grandkids, it was the Twins.

For me, baseball was as much a part of my life as walking. My parents took me to my first Orioles game at six months. In my first four years of life I attended more games than several of the Orioles' players. When we moved to Chicago, Wrigley Field and Old Comiskey Park quickly filled the void left by our departure from Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. By 10 I could name the starting line ups of the Orioles, Cubs, White Sox, and half a dozen other teams. To Grandpa, this was the path we could walk together. Baseball bridged the 55 year age difference between us so that we could talk in some way, as equals. Every summer my family would take the long 6 hour drive to Minneapolis, before taking the longer 6 hour drive to Ely or Bemidji for our summer vacation. Every summer that stop usually included a Twins game.

So there we sat. Snacking on a hot dog, watching the Twins play, and enjoying that grandparent-grandson moment that can exist only at a baseball game. Today that moment enjoys in a special place in my head and heart. I only remember sensations and snapshots of the day at this point in my life, but one of those snapshots was Kirby Puckett. Fast, stocky, with an infectious smile. Lighting quick bat. He was one of Grandpa's favorites.

Perhaps people's most indelible memory of Puckett, is the image of him flying around the bases after hitting a game winning home run in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. For me, what I remember most of Kirby was how beloved he was by the Twins fans. I remember how during his contract year fans brought signs and sung songs that had the same message, "All we are saying, is give Puck the cash." I remember how he always ran out ground balls. I remember how he jumped, seemingly ten feet in the air, up against the Dome's then Plexiglas wall in left center to take away extra bases from the Braves. I remember how Grandpa would talk about him, almost bragging about Puckett's on field accomplishments. I remember Puckett crying when he was forced to retire because of glaucoma. I remember thinking both his retirement and death came far too soon for someone who, from the outside, seemed like a decent human being.

In his time with the Twins, Kirby Puckett made a lot of people happy. Two of those people were my grandfather and I. For that I will always remember him fondly.

Kirby Puckett passed away Monday afternoon at a Phoenix hospital, one day after suffering a massive stroke. He was 45. He is survived by his daughter Catherine, son Kirby, Jr., and his fiance Jodi Olson and her son Cameron.

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