Irrepressible Puckett sure pick for Hall of Fame

July 14, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,SUN STAFF COLUMNIST

The average major-leaguer holds Cal Ripken in special esteem, viewing him as an awesome, almost indestructible, figure.

Ripken reserves the same admiration for one player.

Kirby Puckett.

"This sounds kind of weird in my situation -- I've been given the compliment of being the Iron Man, and being in some ways invincible as far as being able to play every day," Ripken said.

"He symbolizes to me what it is to be invincible, as a ballplayer and a person. Seeing him go through what he did, being asked to retire, it really hits home."

Puckett retired Friday because of irreparable vision problems. Teammates and relatives grew emotional at his news conference. Puckett displayed his usual irrepressible spirit and incandescent smile.

He deserves to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer not only because he was a great player, but also because he was one of the game's shining lights, a genuine sports hero in an age of cynicism and greed.

He looked like a kid, acted like a kid, played like a kid.

That was his charm, but Ripken saw so much more.

"He's a rock of a man physically. He's a rock of a man mentally," Ripken said. "To me, he just seemed to be invincible."

Ripken recalled Puckett holding court during card games at his charity pool tournament in Minneapolis, and hitting ground balls so hard they would spin out of an infielder's glove.

"He's very much different because he combines great talent and his personality just comes out so strong," Ripken said. "He becomes -- I don't want to say a larger-than-life figure -- but something more than just a baseball player."

Ripken and Puckett shared the same agent, Baltimore attorney Ron Shapiro, and the same loyalty to their cities and teams. Puckett spent his entire career with Minnesota, just as Ripken has spent his entire career in Baltimore.

Yet, for all their apparent similarities, they're almost total baseball opposites. Ripken is one of the most analytical players in the game, seemingly all business. Puckett was one of the least analytical, seemingly all fun.

The perceptions aren't completely accurate -- Ripken has his playful side, and Puckett his own fierce determination -- but just as so many of us want to be Cal Ripken, it's easy to see why Ripken might want to be Kirby Puckett.

"To me, Kirby is at his best sitting at a card table playing cards, talking to him, the stories being shared, spending hours and hours with him," Ripken said. "He's the same in that little room as he is everywhere else."

Yet, his personality was only part of his appeal.

Puckett was a .318 lifetime hitter who won a batting title, an RBI title and two World Series championships with a small-market team.

As a Hall of Fame candidate, he's similar to Sandy Koufax, another player forced into early retirement because of injury.

Koufax threw his last pitch at 30. Puckett played his last game at 34.

It isn't necessary to project what they might have done.

Each accomplished enough.

Puckett didn't reach the standard milestones of 400 homers or 3,000 hits, but he appeared in 10 straight All-Star Games, won six Gold Gloves and -- this is the biggie -- had the most hits in his first 10 full seasons of any player this century.

True, he batted more than 50 points higher at the hitter-friendly Metrodome (.344-.291), but the relevant question is, was he a dominant player of his era?

The answer is an unqualified yes.

"His two-hoppers and three-hoppers had more spin and more teeth on them," Ripken said. "It was a combination of being on turf -- turf is a quick surface -- and his power and strength, the way he hit the ball.

"He was one of the few guys who could hit a ball that could spin out of your glove. Even if you closed your glove, the ball had so much on it, it could actually spin out."

In his book, "The Politics of Glory," baseball historian Bill James offered two ways to rate Hall of Fame candidates, using 11 standards to judge retired players, and 17 to monitor actives.

The first list is largely a measure of offensive achievement, and James designed it so that the average Hall of Famer would score exactly 50.

Puckett scored 48, meaning that he was a legitimate candidate for Cooperstown even before he retired.

The second list incorporates team performance, All-Star appearances and Gold Glove awards, with a score over 130 resulting in "almost certain" Hall of Fame selection.

Puckett scored 185.

The Twins won both their championships after trailing three games to two in the World Series. Each time, Puckett was the star of Game 6, making Game 7 possible.

In '87, he tied two Series records, reaching base five times and scoring four runs. In '91, he hit an 11th-inning homer off Atlanta's Charlie Leibrandt, and Jack Buck's CBS call consisted of three words: "See you tomorrow."

If there's any doubt about Puckett's candidacy -- and there shouldn't be -- then the character issue should put him over the top. The original letter sent to Hall voters in 1936 cited it as a consideration.

James projected Puckett to enter the Hall in 2008.

The only shame is that it will be sooner.

"The game misses Kirby," Ripken said. "The whole year has just seemed so strange."

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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