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So long to number 34


Fri, Mar 10th, 2006
Posted in Commentary

I think it was May, 1992, but don’t quote me. We were visiting Minnesota from our home in Michigan, and my sister had given us Twins’ tickets. What I remember about the game was that Kirby Puckett hit a grand slam, and the announcer said it was Puckett’s first grand slam in the Metrodome. The crowd went nuts, rising to its collective feet and screaming. We wouldn’t even begin to calm down until Kirby stepped out from the dugout and modestly tipped his hat to us.

I remember explaining to my friends back in Michigan that Kirby Puckett was so beloved, he could get elected governor by a landslide without ever campaigning.

“You see, that’s one of the big differences between Minnesotans and Michiganders,” I said, ever loyal to my home state, to the point of being obnoxious. “In Minnesota, we really love our heroes. It’s all about love.”

I had a few pictures of Kirby and the Twins’ logo positioned around my office in Michigan. It made me feel closer to Minnesota whenever I missed the folks at home.

Now, with Kirby’s untimely passing, commentators and columnists across the state will try to analyze that love affair Minnesota had with Puck.

Even people like me who know relatively little about sports felt connected to Kirby. My husband Mike, in a former incarnation as a barber who cut hair for a lot of kids during the 1980s, said that it seemed all kids loved baseball, and when you asked about their favorite player, it was always Kirby Puckett. Always.

As a language person, I have to believe part of Kirby’s magic came from his musical name. Honestly, my heart speeds up a bit as I call up the auditory memory of hearing the announcer say his name: “Batting for the Twins—Kirbeeeeeeee Puckettttt!”

And part of the magic was his physique. He really didn’t look like any other player: short and squatty, with little legs that flew around the bases and defied gravity each time he leaped up against the fence to catch a would-be homer. The image of both his fists in the air is permanently burned in our memory of his homer in the sixth game of the World Series.

I liked watching him in the outfield when a ball was hit in his direction. As he prepared to catch it, he did this little shuffling thing with his feet that I always thought was some kind of Baseball Happy Dance until Mike explained that he was positioning himself so that when he caught the ball, he could immediately wind-up and wing it back to the infield. Wham! Double play.

He was the best, yet he wasn’t perfect. Mike and I always chuckled at the way he’d swing and miss at the low pitches, like he was golfing. If the definition of “cool” includes not showing emotions, then Kirby wasn’t cool, because his joy at playing baseball was always obvious.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about Kirby was how he passed up offers to leave Minnesota for better money—a practice that’s all but unheard of in professional sports. Why did he stay? Maybe it can be explained with that archaic word, “loyalty.”

There will be talk, mixed in with all the accolades, of his struggles and “fall from grace.” Now that he’s gone, it seems clear that if he fell, he never fell out of our affection. When he had to retire suddenly because of the eye problem, he took part of each of his fans with him. He had allowed us in, allowed us to be on the field with him in a way that we could share the joy of his accomplishments.

I was originally going to end this column with something about waiting for the next hero like Kirby to come along. But, realistically, what are the chances of that happening? In today’s professional sports climate, what are the chances of another player coming along who loves the game more than big money, who breaks records without taking steroids, who works his hardest every time he hits the field, even after the contract is signed?

I guess we can always hope. Meanwhile, we’ll comfort ourselves with the memories of #34.

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