Thursday, March 09, 2006
posted by James - 4:44 PM
Kirby Puckett (1960-2006)
It was obvious he was the best player on the field from the second he ever stepped on one. Not just in the way he played, but the way he carried himself and led his teammates. I vehemently argue with anybody who wants to trivialize his hall-of-fame credentials. It's unfortunate the '94 strike cut short two of his best years, and then his career was over.
I took notice of him in the mid '80s when I was heavily into baseball card collecting. My dad had bought me the 1985 topps set. That was really when my love affair with knowing everything about baseball started. I knew how valuable this set was because of the Mark McGwire USA Baseball card, and the Darryl Strawberry card, Wade Boggs, Don Mattingly, Roger Clemens... the list goes on and includes Puckett. Even with its value, I still risked it and went through every one of the cards... very often. I wanted to immerse myself in all of this baseball knowledge (remember this was before baseball-reference.com existed). I would sort them by team and then alphabetically and then back to numerically... shampoo, rinse and repeat, always repeat. Even though the back of his bubble gum card didn't have any really impressive numbers on it going into just his second big-league year, getting to Puckett was always one of the highlights.
You just had an instant connection with the guy, whether he went 0-4 or killed the team he played. It didn't hurt that I got to see him impressively win two World Series in a five-year span. These days, it takes gaudy power numbers to catch a fan's eye or to even keep your team from replacing you, but Puckett hit only four homers in his first two years and didn't even touch a .400 SLG%.
Yes, he would explode in 1986-88 with 83 homers, but there were many years after that where he didn't have great power. Power wasn't really his game. He finished his career with only a .477 SLG% and it took two of his best power years in the final two years of his career to get it to that point. He's proof if you just concentrate on putting bat on ball, you're going to get extra-base hits and some of those are going to be doubles and some of them are going to find their way over the wall. I can only name Wade Boggs as a guy who I watched put bat on ball better. He was well on his way to 3,000 hits, but he might have only barely cracked 300 homers.
But unlike some Hall-of-Fame revisionists, I've never counted his lack of longevity against him. Even though his career ended too soon, he still had six gold gloves and 10 all-star appearances (1993 MVP) and led two teams to a World Series title. I don't care what your weight was. I don't care what your reputation off the field AFTER your playing days was. If you can say you did that, you're a hall of famer. And the fact he did that in only 12 seasons after being a #3-overall pick means there was never a doubt.
I'll end this with my favorite Puckett experience, which illustrates how loved he was. I went to the final game of the 1989 season for the Seattle Mariners - Ken Griffey, Jr.'s first big-league season - as they faced the Minnesota Twins. Puckett had battled with Oakland A's 3b Carney Lansford for the AL batting title up until the final day, and Lansford had already came up hitless in four plate appearances with a walk, clinching the title for Puckett. When he took the field for the first time, they announced his accomplishment to the Kingdome crowd of almost 12,000 (which was pretty good for the late 80s Mariners). The crowd gave him a round of standing applause and repeated before and after every at bat. Of course, he still went out with two doubles in five at bats with an RBI in the loss to the Mariners.
Kirby Puckett is the first player inducted into the Hall of Fame who's career I saw and remember in its entirety (Sandberg and Boggs are close, but I was too young to remember their early years, Junior and Clemens to follow).
There may be reason to tarnish some of his legacy because of his post-career indiscretions. He is paying for those now everytime his obituary includes the laundry list of substantiated and unsubstantiated claims against him, and the irresponsible respect he had for his own health alongside all the good he accomplished in his career. I'm choosing not to dismiss or give more weight to either, but he didn't owe me an apology or explanations for actions he may have felt remorse or atoned for. He was engaged to be married for the second time, which doesn't fit the mold of a man who's life is continuing to spiral downward. We may never know where Kirby Puckett's life may have taken him, because it ended far too early.