From the beginning, Puckett had look of a true winner

Paying respects

March 08, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.-- --In the moments after hearing that Kirby Puckett had died of a stroke at just 45 years of age, it dawned on me that I had been there at the beginning ... the day he waddled into the American sports consciousness.

I say that with no disrespect, because Puckett was something to see, even back on May 8, 1984, the night he tied a major league record with four hits in his first big league game.

The reason I remember it so clearly is because he was so clearly special. He was this stocky little guy who could run like the wind and had a smile that looked like daybreak.

We laughed when he took the field at Anaheim Stadium that night, because nobody had ever seen a major league ballplayer who looked quite like that. We laughed when he chugged around the bases on those squatty little legs. We laughed at him for his cartoonish appearance, but we became instant fans and then we laughed with him for the next 12 seasons.

"It feels great just to be here," he told reporters after that game, and he never lost that feeling. Baseball was his ode to joy.

It should tell you something that Puckett only needed a dozen seasons to make the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. It should also tell you something that his death Monday made front pages all over America, even though he played his entire career in a small baseball market where it would have been easy for his bubbly personality and prodigious baseball talent to go nationally unnoticed.

But it was impossible not to notice him, because his personality was even bigger than his barrel chest and his talent carried the Minnesota Twins into the national spotlight and to a pair of unlikely world titles in 1987 and 1991.

Maybe he didn't look the part, but he was a phenomenal athlete, blessed with terrific speed and even better hand-eye coordination. He was a .318 career hitter who averaged 200 hits a season (OK, actually 199.6, so sue me) during his first 10 years in the big leagues. Some pretty good hitters never get that many once.

He would have been a 3,000-hit guy, no doubt about it, if fate hadn't dealt him a cruel hand. He lost the sight in his right eye suddenly because of glaucoma when he was still very much in his prime. He lost the chance to climb up baseball's all-time lists because nobody had ever told him about a simple test to detect a disease that can be controlled with medication.

Puck could have been bitter about that, but Puck - at least publicly - was never bitter about anything. When it became apparent that he would not be able to salvage his playing career, he embarked on a campaign to warn others of the danger of ignoring glaucoma. His misfortune also became the catalyst for sports teams to include more extensive eye and vision testing in their preseason physicals.

Through it all, the smile never dimmed. Puckett could light up a room ... heck, he could light up a country with those pearly whites, but he was not immune to the human frailty that is only magnified in the spotlight of celebrity.

His reputation as a great family man was sullied by a bitter divorce and accusations of adultery and spousal abuse. He was charged with - and later acquitted of - groping a woman in a bar. He dropped out of public view and his weight, which had always been a challenge, ballooned to over 300 pounds.

In other words, he turned out to be as human as the rest of us.

That's too bad, because we like our athletic heroes in neat little packages. We want to remember them just the way they were when they streaked across our sports galaxy. It just doesn't work that way sometimes.

Puckett wasn't a perfect human being, but he was the perfect example of what every baseball player should strive to be - hard-working, ever-hustling and always fan-friendly.

The career highlight that fans probably remember most was his amazing all-around performance in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, when he delivered an RBI triple in the first inning, made a terrific catch in the third, broke a tie in the fifth with a fly ball, singled and stole a base in the eighth and hit a game-winning home run in the 11th to send the series against the Atlanta Braves to a climactic Game 7.

I choose to remember Game 1 - not of any World Series, but of a Hall of Fame career that ended prematurely, and a life that did, too.

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