Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Kirby

Minnesota Twins outfielder and first-ballot Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett died Monday. He was 45.

I won't -- can't -- focus on the ugliness that followed his unfortunately short playing career; by the time the sexual assault allegations surfaced and the acrimonious divorce took place I had long since reached the age where you realize that your heroes are mere human beings, with all the attendant flaws therein. The tragic fall of Kirby Puckett, The Man meant relatively little to me, because it was Kirby Puckett, The Baseball Player who meant so much.

Kirby Puckett, The Baseball Player made us feel special. We Minnesotans, in our little corner of the sports world, had never had a big league championship, not really, or at least not since the Minneapolis Lakers, who moved out west before the NBA was really even the NBA. The Vikings were the poster children for sports futility, the North Stars were perennial underachievers, the Timberwolves didn't exist yet (and may as well not have until a couple of years ago), and the Twins were an undistinguished team playing in a boring stadium that was obsolete five years after it was built. But Kirby Puckett came along and changed all that, leading two slightly-above-average Twins teams to two World Series titles and becoming a legend, an icon, in the process.

Kirby, The Ballplayer was who we say we want our sports heroes to be: grateful, happy, passionate, generous, dedicated, joyous. He always came through; always. He'd say he was going to lead his team to victory, and then, by God, he'd go out and he'd do it. That's the way he played the game and, during his career, at least from what anybody could see, that's the way he lived his life. The bizarre incidents of his post-retirement years, while unjustifiable, simply can't change the way we felt about Kirby, The Man or Kirby, The Ballplayer back then (even if they ultimately changed the way we feel about Kirby, The Man now). To us Minnesotans, Kirby was ours. Our love for him was universal and boundless, and even though he was the most legendary athlete the region had ever seen we all thought of him as a friend, a buddy, never mind the trifling fact that most of us had never really met him.

We all have our Kirby stories. This, from my friend Tom:
I went to my first big league game in 1986 and Kirby was coming off the field. My dad heard somewhere that he collected hats, so my dad tossed Kirby an Able Roofing hat [note: "Able Roofing" was the name of Tom's dad's business, for those of you who couldn't have gotten that from the context]. Kirby then tossed me the ball he was practicing with. Like a dumb-ass kid, I played with the ball and left it in the rain, but I'll always remember how Kirby made my first big league game all the more memorable.

From my friend Mike:
I keep a picture of Kirby Puckett from a Twins Picture Day, one of his arms carrying my little sister and the other draped around me. It is by far the coolest I have ever looked in a photgraph [note: I have seen several photographs of Mike over the years, and I can confirm this]. A slight smile, as if to say, "Yup, just me, my sister, and my main man KP chillin' on the field at the Dome." I look about 12. As I pick up the picture frame, the 12 year old and the 29 year old find it a bit dusty in the office this morning.

Even after the stories that devestatingly told of a philandering, potentially abusive Puckett off the field, I kept the picture in my office, clinging to hero worship, wonderful childhood memories of Twins baseball, and hope for redemption. I am a sports fan from Minnesota, I have to hope for redemption.

In 1986, when I was 10, I wrote to Kirby at spring training. I had read that if you wrote players then, asked for an autographed picture, and included a SASE, you'd likely get something back. I wrote in pencil, "Dear Kirby, How are you? I hope that you have a great season. You are my favorite Twins player. Could you send me an autographed picture of you? I go to about 7 Twins games a year. Good luck! Mike Wagner"

About a month later, the letter I sent came back. On the bottom half of the paper, the following was written in blue ink, "Dear Mike, I am sorry, but I don't have any pictures of me down here right now. If you write to me when the season starts, I will be happy to send you an autographed picture of me. Thanks for writing, Kirby Puckett." It is the same signature that matches a baseball I got signed in person a few years later. That letter is still in a frame.

I had a chance to meet Kirby once, or at least maybe to shake his hand. I was in Minneapolis one summer during my high school years, doing a week-long inner city missionary project with my friend Joel and a few other teens from my local church (I'd love to tell you that my reasons for being there were pure and altruistic and had nothing to do with the fact that I wanted to spend as much time as possible around Joel's sister. I can't). As part of the program we chaperoned a group of kids to the Metrodome for a Twins-Blue Jays game, and before the game started we got to go down on the field. A handful of players came to talk to the group: Joe Carter, Willie Banks, Brian Harper; but the guy we were most excited to see, of course, was Kirby.

Well, the kid Joel and I were watching, who pretty much misbehaved and acted up all night, decided he had to go to the bathroom at one point, so we spent a few minutes exploring the bowels (no pun intended, I swear) of the Metrodome looking for the facilities. When we got back, we found out Kirby had come and gone. I did shake Joe Carter's hand, and later that season he went on to become only the second man in the history of the universe to end a World Series with a walk-off home run, but I'd missed my chance at Kirby.

My first, last, and only chance, it would turn out.

Your childhood heroes are supposed to pass away before you do; the fact that they're your childhood heroes makes them older than you, so naturally they ought to go first or it would be considered tragic. Also, age and wisdom bring with them the knowledge that no person is entirely heroic, no one's legend entirely without blemish. One naturally realizes this or one would be considered naive.

As you grow older your childhood heroes become less heroic, and then, finally, they die. It's a part of life.

A sad part.

Thank you, Kirby, and God bless.

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