Center of action is where Puckett always pops up


October 14, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

TORONTO -- Everything kept coming back around to Kirby Puckett. Mike Pagliarulo got the biggest hit and Jack Morris won two games and the bullpen didn't allow an earned run in 18 1/3 innings, but the Minnesota Twins kept coming back around to Kirby Puckett for deliverance in the American League playoffs.

It was his single that tied Game 3 in the sixth inning, when there had been every reason to believe the Toronto Blue Jays were about to take the series in hand. It was his home run in the fourth inning of Game 4 that started the Twins on a big rally that crushed the Blue Jays' spirit.

Then yesterday, throughout the ebb and flow that was Game 5, he was everywhere. Homering in the first inning to get the Twins rolling. Singling in the fifth as part of a rally that announced that, though down three runs, the Twins weren't about to go down silently. And then, at bat in the eighth with the leading run on second . . .

It was a moment of perfect symmetry for the Twins. Suddenly, everything had come back around to Puckett. Just as it has for six years now. In good times and bad. Back around to Puckett. The Twins' Twin. Up there batting against the Jays' best reliever, Duane Ward, with the game on the line. With the AL pennant on the line, in fact.

"He'd struck me out in the sixth on a pitch I shouldn't have swung at, a ball," Puckett said later, in the clubhouse, "and so all I did was go up there that time saying I wasn't going to give him anything. He was going to have to earn whatever he got."

The first pitch was a fastball, inside, and the second pitch was another fastball, over the plate, and Puckett swung and sent it bouncing between the first baseman and second baseman into right field, the runner on second coming around to score: the difference in the Twins' 8-5 win.

Then he was accepting the series MVP trophy in a humid clubhouse smelling of warm champagne, and then he was backed up all the way into the shower by a swarm of reporters, beer dripping off the brim of his cap, Puckett talking and talking and talking.

"Growing up in the projects in Chicago, where I did, this is the kind of thing you dream about," he said, having hit a team-high .429 with four runs, nine hits and six RBI. "It's a thrill to win the MVP thing. But someone has to win it, right? Anyone knows there's a roomful of people in here who deserve it."

He was right about that. Pagliarulo's 10th-inning, tie-breaking homer in Game 3 essentially won two games for the Twins: that one and the next one, with the Jays clearly depressed. Morris was stellar. The bullpen was absolutely vicious. But every one of those others understood that they wouldn't have been there without Puckett, that it always comes back to him.

"Here's a guy who didn't complain when other players signed after him for more money," GM Andy MacPhail said, "because he understood that he would benefit in the end. And here's a guy whose personality absolutely controls the clubhouse. We can't have prima donnas here with Kirby setting the lead example."

It's the same with the Lakers and Magic, the 49ers and Montana, the Orioles and Ripken. You can't cop an attitude when the best player on the team is the first player to report to practice, the hardest worker, the example of all examples.

Puckett reported to spring training two weeks early this year. He comes early every year. "How can anyone show up with a sour attitude when you have Kirby sitting there for two weeks working out to make the team better?" MacPhail said. "He has a genuine enthusiasm for the game that just can't be measured in importance."

He is 30 years old now and not quite the player he was five years ago, no longer the big power hitter or triple-digit RBI man. The Twins talked in the spring about moving him from center field to make his life easier. He responded with a solid year for him: .319, 15 homers, 89 RBI, probably another Gold Glove.

"People were talking all year about other people, about Chili Davis carrying us and Jack Morris and all the new guys, and that was fine," Puckett said. "All I wanted to do was win after coming in last place last year, and we were winning. I really wasn't doing anything special for me."

Just being there every day. Just being one of the three or four most versatile players in the game. How many others hit for power and average to all fields, run the bases well, throw hard? Not many. "Puck is just Puck," manager Tom Kelly said. "There's nothing you need to say."

He had only one hit in his first seven at-bats in this series, and people were talking about a slump. "I just told them two games didn't mean anything, that I was going to keep hacking up there, and if good things were meant to happen, they would," Puckett said.

He reached base in seven of his next 11 at-bats, either scoring or driving in a run four times. And then it all came back around to him again in the eighth yesterday, the perfect moment, Ward's fastball running out over the plate. "We all jumped up and cheered," Twins outfielder Shane Mack said, "but I can tell you one thing. Not one of us was surprised."

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