From March 8, 2006: The real Kirby Puckett

On the John

The real Kirby Puckett

Originally completed March 8, 2006

Frank Deford chronicled the 'Secret Life of Kirby Puckett' in March 2003.

Frank Deford chronicled the ‘Secret Life of Kirby Puckett’ in March 2003.

A story’s end defines its middle. An English professor told me that.

Just because a person dies doesn’t make him good. A friend told me that.

I thought of both when I heard that Kirby Puckett was dead.

There are some athletes whom you cheer for regardless of the jersey they wear. Kirby Puckett was one of those guys. You want numbers? 10 All-Star games in 12 seasons, all with the Minnesota Twins. A career average of .318. Six Gold Gloves. MVP of the ’91 ALCS. And two World Series Rings. On March 28, 1996, he awoke without the use of his right eye. He had glaucoma. His career was over. As it turned out, he was a first ballot Hall-of-Famer, a distinction reserved for the best and most beloved.

And he was beloved.

An icon. A pillar. A hero. What made Puckett special, beyond his talent, was his demeanor. He was a team-guy. He was a nice guy. He’s a real, good guy. One of the few.

And that body…

Kirby Puckett was 5 feet 8 inches and 210 pounds of rounded beauty. When that man jacked one over the fence, or threw himself into the wall at the Metrodome to save a home run, you weren’t just watching a player. You were always watching a body. His body. Guys who sit 5’8/210 with pudgy cheeks and a love gut usually spend their summers playing softball at the sandlot, and with each hit they crack they say to themselves, “If I could only play in the Major Leagues, I’d do it so hard and so good and with so much fun that you couldn’t help but love me. Just one at bat. That’s all I want.”

Kirby Puckett was the fulfillment of that wish. A true hero.

We couldn’t help but love him.

******

I remember the spring of 2003, when Kirby Puckett was charged with dragging a woman into a restaurant bathroom, forcing her into a stall, and grabbing her breast hard enough to leave a mark. Not Kirby. Anybody but Kirby. We, the sports fans of America, we are used to the scumbags. We are used to the money-hungry malcontents who play kids’ games for millions of dollars like ten year olds being forced to mow the lawn on a summer day. And you know what? We cheer them anyways. It’s an ugly, needy relationship.

But we love our sports, and when we find an athlete who is everything we want him to be on and off the field, an athlete who gives his spirit, body, and heart to the game, you know what we do? We give ours right back. Rare is the athlete who gives us hope in the truest sense, hope that we can appreciate athletes for their human qualities as well as their athletic ones, for their sportsmanship as well as their competitiveness, for their will as well as their skill. Rare is the athlete who wishes not simply to be admired, but to be admirable.

Kirby Puckett was that athlete. To quote Field of Dreams, he was “a sign of all that was good, and it can be again.” Say it ain’t so, Kirby. Say it ain’t so.

He was acquitted of the sexual assault charges, but they were still there. And there was more. Starting in January of 2001, the same month that he was inducted into the Hall, we began hearing about a different Kirby Puckett. We heard tales of infidelity. We heard about his mistress, and his mistresses for his mistress. We heard about public urination and other lewd behavior. We heard about domestic violence and murder threats.

It was too much to take. Had it been one or two stories, maybe I could have ignored it. That was easier than the pain of losing the image of Kirby Puckett, an image I believed in. But how many stories can you ignore? Not this many, that’s for sure.

******

And now he’s dead.

Glaucoma ended his career prematurely, and his mistress says that when he lost baseball, “he started to become full of himself and very abusive.” Puckett died on Monday, a day after suffering a stroke. What if he had suffered this stroke ten years earlier, and died? His good-guy image would have lived on. What if he had survived this stroke, made a full recovery, and turned his life around? What if he had come clean about his past, apologized for his indiscretions, and lived another thirty years? What would his story be then?

Instead, he died at 45. Old enough to taint his name, too young to rebuild it.

And we are left with…with what? A Hall-of-Fame baseball player, for sure, but what else? A sad, selfish, tragic man who self-destructed? A cautionary tale? A life that may have been redeemed had it not been for a stroke? Or maybe we are left blindly with ‘Puck,’ the smiling, enthusiastic, underdog who, in a world of jerks, captivated us with his good cheer and All-American attitude.

Hero? Icon? Son of a bitch?

Kirby Puckett gave us something to believe in.

Sometimes I wish he hadn’t.

Copyright 2006, jm silverstein

Read Frank Deford’s ‘The Rise And Fall of Kirby Puckett’

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