Winfield, Puckett get Hall call

Outfielders elected to baseball shrine in first year of eligibility

Twins teammates in '93-94

Each named on over 80 percent of ballots

January 17, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

One was an obvious choice.

The other a sentimental favorite.

But both Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett reached the Hall of Fame the same way - by playing winning baseball and putting up the kind of numbers that could not be ignored by the voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

Winfield, whose career spanned 22 years and six teams, was named on 84.5 percent of the ballots in his first year of eligibility. No surprise after a career that featured 3,110 hits, 465 home runs and five Gold Gloves for his sometimes spectacular play in the outfield.

Puckett, whose career was cut short by glaucoma, also figured to be a popular choice, but couldn't be sure of a first-ballot election because of the impact his tragic eye problem had on his cumulative numbers.

The voters obviously were able to see the true merit in an impressive 12-year career during which the outfielder had 2,304 hits and set a record for the most hits (2,040) by a player in his first 10 calendar years in the majors - from his major-league debut on May 8, 1984, through May 7, 1994. He was named on 82.1 percent of the ballots, meeting the 75 percent ballot requirement by a relatively comfortable margin.

The 40-year-old Twins executive became the third-youngest player to be elected while still living. Only Lou Gehrig (36) and Sandy Koufax (37) made it into the Hall sooner.

Former Montreal Expos and New York Mets catcher Gary Carter finished third in the balloting (64.9 percent), and Boston Red Sox star Jim Rice was named on 57.9 percent of the ballots to finish fourth.

It was the seventh time in the history of the Hall of Fame that two players who had been teammates were elected in the BBWAA voting in the same year. Puckett played his entire career for the Minnesota Twins, and the well-traveled Winfield passed through Minnesota for two seasons (1993-94) near the end of his career.

"We've already talked, and we congratulated each other," Puckett said at an afternoon news conference at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. "It will be very, very special going in with him."

The induction ceremony, which also could include one or more inductees selected by the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee, will take place Aug. 5 in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Physically, Winfield and Puckett couldn't have looked more different. Winfield was a classic bigger-than-life athlete who stood 6 feet 6 and was so talented that he was also drafted by the NFL, the NBA and the old American Basketball Association after a multi-sport career at the University of Minnesota.

Puckett was bigger than life, too, but not in quite the same way. At 5-8 and 210 pounds, he was build like a fire hydrant, but he could run like the wind and swing a bat with the greatest hitters who ever lived.

"The best thing I can say about him - and I played with a lot of guys - was that he's the most positive person I played with on a daily basis," Winfield said by conference call from his Los Angeles-area home. "He did something for every teammate."

Winfield could have started his baseball career with the Orioles, who took him as a high school graduate in the 40th round of the 1969 draft. Instead, he would be the fourth pick overall by the San Diego Padres in the 1973 draft and did not spend a day in the minor leagues.

He spent eight very productive seasons with the Padres before becoming a free agent and signing with the New York Yankees, where he would emerge as one of the game's biggest stars.

His career would eventually include stints with the California Angels, Toronto Blue Jays (where he won his only world title), Twins and Cleveland Indians, leaving him with a tough decision to make. Which team will he represent on his plaque at Cooperstown?

"I can't tell you because I haven't thought about it yet," Winfield said. "I didn't want to be presumptuous. The hat I'm wearing is the Hall of Fame hat today. My hat's off to all the teams that gave me the opportunity to do my thing."

Look for Winfield to go in as a Yankee, both because of that team's great tradition and because that is where he established himself as a bona fide superstar - driving in 100 runs six times in seven years after first donning pinstripes for the strike-shortened 1981 season.

Of course, his stay in New York also was marked by repeated conflict with volatile Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who derisively nicknamed him "Mr. May" - apparently to remind him that he had not done enough to replace Hall of Famer and postseason hero Reggie Jackson.

Winfield helped lead the Yankees to the World Series in his first season, but it would be the club's last appearance in the Fall Classic until 1996, when the new Yankees dynasty emerged with the first of four world titles in five years.

It would take Winfield 11 years and two uniform changes to get back to the World Series, finally winning his only world championship ring as a member of the Blue Jays in 1992.

Puckett won two rings in five years, leading the Twins to an unlikely world championship in 1987, a season in which the team won just 85 games during the regular season. He would return to the World Series in 1991 and play a big role in a dramatic seven-game victory over the Atlanta Braves. He also appeared in 10 All-Star games.

He surpassed 200 hits in a season five times and appeared to be a lock to join baseball's exclusive 3,000-hit fraternity when he lost the sight in one eye because of a common disease that could have been treated if it had been caught in time.

"I was at the top of my game when I was forced to retire," he said. "I think you could put my numbers over 12 years up with anybody, and they'd be comparable."

Puckett never displayed bitterness, instead turning his misfortune into an opportunity to campaign for glaucoma testing. He currently works as an executive in the Twins front office.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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