The Puzzle That Was Kirby Puckett

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - March 15, 2006
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There were moments on the field when he was a man among boys, but most of the time, with his joy of the game, he was a boy among men.

Kirby Puckett was the Minnesota Twins’ version of Ernie Banks. Only he won. He became the embodiment of his team through athletic ability and the way he carried himself on and off the field. When Banks said, “It’s a great day for a ball game. Let’s play two,” one would expect Puckett to be the first out of the dugout to make it happen.

Fun-loving and talented, he will be remembered as much for his smile, which was even referenced on his Hall of Fame plaque, as for his big game ability. He did things that seemed unlikely for someone with his physical makeup. He wasn’t particularly athletic looking, packing 210 pounds on his compact 5-foot-8-inch frame, but boy, could he play.

He hit 31 home runs in 1986 when 30 was still an impressive number and he played the out-field like few others. For his career he finished with a .318 batting average, the highest for a right-handed hitter since Joe DiMaggio, won six gold gloves, was a 10-time All Star, picked up six Silver Slugger Awards and led the American League with hits four times. And who can forget 1991? Minnesota vs. Atlanta.

For the series, Puckett hit .429 with two home runs and six RBI, but it was game six that everyone will remember. Facing elimination, Puckett told his teammates he would carry them to victory. He wasn’t lying. Late in the game he went high against the wall to rob a sure extra-base hit from Ron Gant. Puckett had a habit of doing that. A few innings later he did even better by hitting a game winning home run off Charlie Leibrandt in the 11th inning to force a game seven. The image of him circling the bases, arms held high, then pumping his fists in celebration, is burned into our memory.

For all his gifts on the field, there were parts of his story that are not celebratory. Puckett was not a perfect man. That became clear after his playing career ended. In 2002 he was divorced by his wife, Tanya, after what was reported to be several violent encounters which resulted in a restraining order against the outfielder. While married he had numerous affairs. Laura Nygren, a woman with whom he had a long relationship, told Sports Illustrated in 2003 that Puckett’s celebrated kindness, which included many hospital visits to children, was more an act than something he truly believed in. She also told SI writer Frank Deford that she was a victim of Puckett’s infidelity.

Former teammate Kent Hrbek speculated in interviews that Puckett may not have been able to leave the past behind. That the loss of his career had an effect on him that he had difficulty dealing with. If that was the case, it was well-hidden. In public he remained the same likeable man who won the Branch Rickey and Roberto Clemente Man of the Year awards for his community service. It’s what we had expected from a member of the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame.

Whether the sordid tales are stuff of fact or if they have been promoted with malice hardly matters. Not now. Whatever his sins, he paid for them. He lost his career at the age of 34, his family at 42 and his life three years later. He had two children, was supposed to get married for a second time this summer and had made peace with his first wife.

Such a terrible ending to such a wonderful beginning. Rest in peace.

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