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Tuesday, March 07, 2006 

Kirby Puckett 1960-2006

I had a Oscar-related post all mapped out for today, but given the events of the day paying tribute to Hollywood seems far less important. On a day where Theo Fleury threw a puck at a ref’s head while playing in Europe, if I’m not writing about that, you know something major happened.

One of the true sporting legends of our time passed away at the age of 45. A day after suffering a stroke, Kirby Puckett, whose weight gain in recent years was noticeable even on his famous rotund stature, died while recovering from surgery.

Kirby was one of those people who would never be seen without a smile on his face, and a love for life. Even as his waistline expanded in recent years he was happy with it because it was who he was. It was a part of what he was, and he saw no reason to let it trouble him. A smile from start to finish, in a life that could have excused frown lines more than most anyone else’s.

Born into poverty in 1960, he and his 8 siblings grew up in a housing project in Chicago. His career started coming to an early end in 1995 when he was hit by a pitch in his last at bat of the season, breaking his jaw. Months later in the spring he woke up and couldn’t see out of his right eye, which was later found to be glaucoma. In July of 1996, Kirby officially announced an end to his career.

A few years later, Kirby’s wife Tonya accused him of threatening to kill her during an argument. In the ensuing interrogation it came out that there was a history of being abusive and unfaithful, and led to their divorce. Later on, in 2003, another woman brought charges against Kirby of sexual assault, which were later proven to be false. All the adversity, however, led to an end in Kirby’s roll as an executive with the Twins, and likely also had an effect on his immense weight-gain. Some also say that it took away from Kirby’s standing as the most liked man in baseball, and as one of the greatest players of all time.

No matter how you interpret the events of his life outside of baseball, Kirby’s numbers on the field will stand the test of time. Of note from his career accomplishments, were a career .318 batting average, six gold gloves, 2 World Series rings and 10 All-Star Game appearances in only 12 seasons in the majors. He also added 207 home runs and 1,085 RBI’s from his 5’9”, 220 pound playing weight.

What we all remember the most will be the 1987 World Series, the first of his two rings. Down 3 games to 2, Puckett came up huge in game six. Most memorable were his huge leaping catch against the wall to rob Ron Gant of a key extra-base hit, and his home-run in the 11th inning. That home run forced a historic Game 7, which the Twins went on to in 1-0 in extra innings for their first of 2 titles.

Of course there is something else we’ll all remember about Kirby, his “smile, laughter and love for the game”, as Kent Hrbek said. That is easily what we will all remember the most from his playing days, and hopefully when all is said an done what we will remember the most about the man himself. His bright attitude about life, which he somehow carried from the projects and in to the Major Leagues was always heartening and brought joy to many people, in and out of the baseball world. We’ll always remember the smile.

Career Highlights

All Star – 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995
ALCS MVP – 1991
All Star MVP – 1993
Branch Rickey Award Winner – 1993
Gold Glove – 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1991, 1992
Silver Slugger – 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1992, 1994
Batting Title – 1989
Hits Leader – 1987, 1988, 1989, 1992
RBI Leader – 1994

Career Highs

Runs – 119
Hits – 234
Doubles – 45
Triples – 13
Home Runs – 31
RBI – 121
Stolen Bases – 21
Batting Average - .356
Fielding Percentage - .994

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