Puckett inspires Twins' big rebound Team's playoff hopes ride on his bat

October 09, 1991|By Stan Hochman | Stan Hochman,Knight-Ridder News Service

MINNEAPOLIS HC — MINNEAPOLIS -- Kirby Puckett was talking about twins. Not Twins . . . twins.

"I've got this brother, he's a twin," Puckett said. "He's 6-3 and weighs 225.

"Another brother, his twin, is 5-3 and 135. He got my mother's genes. She was only 4-10, maybe 4-11.

"Me, I've always been small. But I've got a big heart. All I ever asked was, give me a chance to show what I've got."

Puckett got another golden chance to show what he's got, starting last night, in the American League Championship Series, Twins against the Blue Jays.

He is 5-8, maybe 225 pounds, built like a fire hydrant, a throwback, a superstar who plays with both enthusiasm AND intelligence, one of the five best players in the game, and proud of it.

"Six straight All-Star Games," he chirps, when he senses the dialogue headed in the direction of America about to rediscover Puckett after a four-year hiatus.

Remember? The Twins stunned America in '87, winning only 85 games during the regular season, and then winning every home game in the playoffs and World Series. Champs.

They are just as startling this time around, riding the worst-to-first rocket, a nifty blend of rookies, retreads, free agents and swaps assembled by general manager Andy MacPhail, who looks 19 and acts 59.

"I knew in spring training," Puckett said, "that we had a good HTC club. We'd gone out and gotten some quality people.

"I'd hit against Jack Morris for nine years, I knew how tough he was. Give him the ball, he gives you eight, nine innings.

"When Chili Davis was with the Angels, he killed us. People talked about him having a bad back, but I knew he could play.

"Mike Pagliarulo, people said he couldn't hit anymore. He came here, he's been hitting .290 most of the year.

"Then we got some guys out of the farm system. Guy like Chuck Knoblauch, playing a vital position, second base, people going in hard, trying to break up double plays, and he's kept the right attitude, while learning the game.

"I can't honestly tell you I thought we'd win the division, coming out of spring training. But I knew we were better, I knew we'd improved over that last-place club."

Puckett is one of seven survivors of that magic carpet ride in '87. That year, the Twins were pitcher poor. It was Viola, Blyleven and pray to heaven.

Les Straker was the third starter. He is pitching in Italy now. Probably the third starter.

"You can't compare teams," Puckett hedged. "But, you'd have to say we have more pitching now with Morris (18-12), Scott Erickson (20-8) and Kevin Tapani (16-9).

"Plus, we've got Rick Aguilera and Steve Bedrosian in the bullpen. Plus, we've got some great role players.

"What hasn't changed, is what we believe in. We believe that if you come out and just play the game, play the game the way it should be played, good things will happen.

"You'll never see us hit ground balls and lollygag down the line. Guys run everything out. Guys play hard."

An old-school player on an old-school team that wears old-school ties on road trips. Managed by an old-school manager named Tom Kelly.

"I first met T. K. in '82," Puckett recalled. "He was one of the coaches in spring training.

"He was the same way then that he is now. Hasn't changed at all.

"You media guys see him one way. He'll bore you to death. He is not the Sparky Anderson type. He is not gonna [lie to] you.

"Same with the players. He comes right at you. If he has something to say to you, he'll tell you personally. He won't yell.

"It's done, it's over with. You don't have to read between the lines."

That's easy for Kelly to say, play the game the way it should be played. But how do you get millionaires to play the game properly, when they can't spell "sacrifice," let alone execute one?

"Every so often," Kelly said, in his staccato style, "you see some of that sneaking in, a guy concerned about his own numbers.

"You sit a guy down a few days, it gets his attention. But we don't have much of that.

"Mr. Puckett and Mr. [Kent] Hrbek take care of that."

Mr. Puckett hit .319 this year, one point below his lifetime average. He hit 15 homers, stole 11 bases, drove in 89 runs.

And he plays deep in center field, still swift enough and agile enough to leap against the soft wall, reach up, and turn a clout into an out.

"Only one this year," he said. "People made a fuss about it the year I took back seven or eight.

"Guy like Charles Barkley, he's my favorite, all those rebounds, -- as small as he is.

"I can't help it, the guys I like are short people. Guy like [the Angels'] Dave Gallagher, doesn't play a lot, but when he plays, he plays hard."

Puckett plays hard. Some of it is traceable to growing up in Chicago, in the Robert Taylor Homes, a wretched place once described in Newsweek as "the place where hope died."

"It's nine blocks from Comiskey Park," Puckett said. "I see it when we drive by, on the way to the ballpark.

"No sense going back. All the guys I grew up with are either dead or in jail.

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