March 8, 2006

Remembering Kirby

Ever since hearing the sad news about Kirby Puckett's stroke Sunday, I've been trying to think about what to say. I kept drawing a blank, which is why I chose instead to post an essay about my mom's stroke that I wrote back in 2003. For me, it was the most personal, heartfelt way I could deal with Puckett's situation.

Now that Puckett is dead, I am at an even bigger loss for words. Losing him almost doesn't seem real, in part because of how young he was, in part because of how suddenly it all happened, and in part because of how private he's been since retiring. As Bat Girl so eloquently wrote on her blog Monday, in many ways Twins fans had already mourned Puckett twice even before his death.

The Puckett we knew so well -- or as we found out later, thought we knew so well -- died years ago. That doesn't take away from the greatness of his life or the sadness of his death, but it might explain why I'm struggling so much to come up with a proper tribute. Had another Twins legend died I would have simply written a recap of their career much like I have for the players in the ongoing Top 40 Minnesota Twins series. For some reason that sort of write-up didn't seem at all fitting for Puckett.

The truth is that few Twins fans will actually miss Puckett the man, because they haven't seen him regularly for years. Instead, what we will all miss so much is the memories we have of Kirby. The nice thing about memories is that they stay around forever. The sad thing about the memories of Puckett is that they will now make us think about the way his life ended. In that sense, my memories of Puckett are a mixed bag.

On one hand I see his greatness as a player and his infectious personality. I see Kirby leaping up against the fence to bring a homer back. I see Kirby shimmying into his batting stance before lacing a double into the gap and willing that squat body around the bases. I see Kirby sending the Twins to Game 7 "tomorrow night" with a homer off Charlie Leibrandt. I see Kirby telling the world that "anything is possible" during his Hall of Fame induction speech.

On the other hand I see Puckett with gauze over a swollen eye. I see stories about Puckett and his relationships with women that just didn't seem possible. I see Puckett going into court and standing in the background while his lawyer makes a speech. I see Puckett, as Tony Oliva said, "Getting bigger and bigger and bigger." I see Puckett without a prominent role in an organization that without question can call him its most popular player.

Few athletes in the history of sports have brought more joy to fans than Puckett. He was the feel-good story to end all feel-good stories, a guy from a bad part of Chicago who became one of the greatest players in baseball despite having a body that couldn't have been less-suited for the sport. He was as unique as he was effective, scattering hits all over the Metrodome while swinging at anything, and chasing down fly balls on the turf with those stubby little legs.

As a baseball player, Kirby was a great example of why you should never judge a book by its cover. Unfortunately, as a person Puckett was much the same way. Naturally, Puckett is being remembered mostly for the good he did, for the ever-smiling, hitting-machine hero that he was. What's tragic is that remembering him that way leaves out a big part of his life. Because for as much happiness as he brought to fans from 1984 to 1995, he brought nearly as much sadness when it ended.

Kirby's career ended abruptly and far too soon, and his post-playing days were unexpected and sad. It's a shame that Puckett's death was also sudden and came far too soon, and it's a shame that the last memories of him that many fans have will be depressing ones. Puckett's death is an opportunity to think back on all the amazing memories he provided the people of Minnesota. It's also an opportunity to think about the way we "know" people who we've never really met, and how even legends and heroes have flaws.

At the press conference announcing his retirement, Puckett warned: "Don't take anything for granted, because tomorrow is not promised to any of us." The quote was extremely moving then and, looking back on the final years of his life, even more meaningful now.

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