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NOISE FROM THE DUGOUT

Hero Lost
By Tom Goldstein

 

I met him only once. It was in the spring of 1985 at an autograph signing held at my retail store. I'd worked out an agreement with the Twins that he would sign for two hours on the first Saturday in May, so I spent several weeks before the event promoting his appearance to customers, running ads in the local newspapers, rearranging my small store to accommodate a large crowd, stocking up on his rookie baseball cards and other Twins memorabilia, and hoping for sunshine—not a given in Minnesota during the early days of spring.

The signing was to begin at noon, but the crowd began forming at 11:00 A.M. An hour later, the store was packed and the line snaking outside and down the sidewalk had grown to at least two hundred people deep, each person clutching some kind of memento to be signed that day. But the guest of honor was nowhere to be found. So we waited. Five minutes, then ten. By 12:15 I was beginning to grow uneasy: Had there been some kind of miscommunication? Had he gotten lost?

Twenty minutes past the hour a blue car slowly cruised by the entrance—the face behind the wheel looked familiar, but was that him? Minutes later, the answer was obvious. An excited buzz swept through the crowd, and then there were shouts and squeals of "There he is!" As the youthful Twins center fielder made his way past the eager throng and through the crowded store entrance, everybody wanted to touch him. Little kids, grown men, young girls—there was just something very lovable about this personable athlete whose enthusiasm for the game, hustle on the field, and infectious smile had captivated fans everywhere. The truth is, I'd kinda fallen in love with the guy myself.

In an era when multi-million dollar contracts and team complaints of financial woes comprised much of the talk in the sports pages, Kirby Puckett was a throwback. He ran the bases with abandon, made sensational back-to-the-plate catches in center field, slapped hits all over the diamond, and always, it seemed, had a smile on his face. His joy for the game was clear for everyone to see, and I suspect in those early years there wasn't an autograph request he could refuse. Simply put, he was a pleasure to watch, an irresistible presence on the ball field.

The first time I saw Kirby Puckett in action, I thought of Willie Mays. Kirby didn't have Mays's lithe body or graceful swing, and only later would he develop home run prowess of his own. However, like Mays, he was a superlative outfielder, and whenever Puckett was on the field his presence was felt. Kirby may have spent half his career playing inside the sterile Metrodome, but there wasn't a fan in attendance during a game who didn't stop chattering and lean forward a little bit in his seat when Puckett stepped in to bat.

A lot of people remember Kirby as this little roly poly guy who didn't look much like a ballplayer, but they forget that packed onto that five-foot-eight frame of his was a barrel chest, powerful biceps, and muscular thighs that carried him around the bases in a hurry. Twenty-one years ago, when I escorted him into my store for that autograph appearance, I placed my hand on his shoulder to guide him to where he'd be sitting—and could feel the taut muscles underneath; the guy was ripped. At twenty-four, Puckett exuded strength and fitness and youthful vigor, and there was a confidence about him that was irrepressible.

Maybe that's what we loved most about Kirby Puckett—that he represented so many of the qualities that we admire in others and that we've come to expect from our heroes. He had an enormous work ethic, he always hustled on the field, he was graceful with adults and children, he loved what he did, he was loyal to his organization, and he was generous. Midway through his career, Puckett and his then-wife established a significant scholarship fund at the University of Minnesota amid little fanfare. And though Kirby became a free agent after the 1992 season, he ultimately accepted a five-year contract with the Twins that paid him $1 million a year less than what the Red Sox and Phillies had reportedly offered for his services.

I guess that's what makes his tragic fall from grace so hard to comprehend, his self-destructive behavior and death at forty-five too sad to accept. Unlike the sullen Barry Bonds, whose heroics have always been limited to the ball field, Kirby was a larger- than-life persona who seemed to welcome the adulation and attention that his style of play and effusive personality attracted. The recent allegations in Game of Shadows (Gotham Books, 2006) that Bonds turned to steroids after becoming jealous of the attention that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa received during their historic home run duel in 1998 are not surprising, given that Bonds, the talented son of a one-time baseball phenom (his father Bobby) and godson to Willie Mays, grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth—and the arrogance that went with it. But Puckett came from humble roots in Chicago's public housing projects, the youngest son in a large family kept together by a hardworking father and protective mother. Kirby was the quintessential American success story, the little guy who persevered against all odds, the kid who demonstrated that anybody could succeed in baseball if they were willing to work hard enough.

Thus, when Puckett was charged with criminal sexual assault in 2002, followed by lurid details in a March 2003 Sports Illustrated cover story ("The Secret Life of Kirby Puckett" by Frank Deford) that alleged he had carried on numerous extramarital affairs, threatened to kill his wife, sexually harassed a female employee of the Twins, and had a temporary order of protection filed against him by a former lover, many of Kirby's faithful must have wondered what had gone so terribly wrong in his life. Was it a failure to come to terms with his premature retirement in 1996 (a decision forced by permanent damage to the retina in his right eye)? Was he unable to cope with the death of both of his beloved parents before his thirtieth birthday? Or was it simply the age-old tale of what celebrity can do to a person, that most talented athletes who reach superstar status are incapable of resisting the many temptations that await them when they ascend to the rarified air at the top of their profession. We'll probably never know.

Kirby Puckett was obviously a conflicted man, happy-go-lucky in public but harboring a dark, tragic side in private. One can only speculate as to why he couldn't make the transition from popular superstar to beloved, retired Hall of Famer, but something put him on a path of self-destruction that caused him to lose his marriage, lose his connection to an adoring public, and ultimately disregard his personal health and well-being. Near the end, Puckett's eating was out of control, he had isolated himself from baseball, and he was struggling to regain some kind of equilibrium in his life. After his sudden death from a stroke in March, there was talk that he had been putting his life back together and looking for a fresh start, and maybe that was the case. However, like most troubled celebrities prone to isolate themselves from the very problems that afflict them, one wonders whether there was anything short of a brush with death that would have gotten Kirby to confront the demons that must have tormented him in the last years of his life. Sadly, he ignored the warning signs all around him, and there was to be no second chance.

In the end, Kirby Puckett's life outside of baseball came to resemble more that of another great center fielder, Mickey Mantle, who spent his retirement years literally drinking himself to death. To his credit, Mantle found sobriety before he died, made the amends that he could, and left those who were the closest to him better able to cope with the tragic circumstances of his life. It's a shame that Puckett couldn't find a similar strength to turn his life around before it was too late.

Like many of us, Kirby Puckett was a tragically flawed human being, a man who seemingly fulfilled his wildest dreams and then lost his bearings. While I do not condone any of the awful things that he was accused of doing to his ex-wife and several other women in his orbit, I will leave it to the historians and others to further explore the riddle that was his life. What I prefer to remember is his exuberance as a ballplayer, his heroic efforts in the 1987 and 1991 World Series, and the joy that he brought to so many people in Minnesota for so many years.

Before he sat down to sign autographs for that long line of fans so many years ago, I asked Kirby if there was anything I could get him. "Just a Pepsi, man," he replied. Two hours later, his work completed and the last autograph signed, I thanked him for doing such a wonderful job, for being so gracious with all the fans that had come to see him that day. "No problem," he said. And then he was gone.

—EFQ

TOM GOLDSTEIN operated the Sports Collection fan store in St. Paul from 1983 through 1997. In 1998, he revived Elysian Fields Quarterly and has never looked back. He still owns an autographed photo signed by Kirby Puckett in May of 1985.

This column first appeared in EFQ 23:3, Summer 2006

© 2006 Tom Goldstein

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