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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blast From The Past: A Tribute To Kirby Puckett

Until I come back and swing for the fences, here is another archived piece for your enjoyment. Considering that I'm off to Minnesota this weekend, I feel it's appropriate to run my tribute to Kirby Puckett that I wrote upon his death a few years ago.

Now batting third, number 34, KIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRRBBBBBBBBYYYYYYYY Puckett!

I first laid eyes on Kirby Puckett in my Fleer Panini sticker album in 1985 in the Rookies portion of the book. The defintion of rookie I did not know at the time, so I assumed it just meant he was one of the best players. This Puckett guy had a unique look and a really strange name. His sticker was only a head shot, so I didn't even realize at the time that he was short and stocky. Well, people always forget that Kirby didn't fatten up until 1987, so really he was just small, not yet the stocky smiling guy I would soon call my idol. I'd always smile when I got a Kirby Puckett card in a pack of Topps or Donruss, and when people asked me who my favorite player was, I'd spew off the usual names of Daryl Strawberry, Jose Canseco, Joe Carter, and of course Kirby Puckett.

Right after I became a man at age 13 after having my Bar Mitzvah and getting hell for being considered a front runner because I also had loved Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco and the Oakland Athletics, I decided that I would start rooting for the Minnesota Twins. And of course Kirby Puckett was now number one all to himself. I would buy, or trade for any Kirby Puckett card I could find. I begged my mom to spend $200 on the tough to obtain Kirby Puckett 1984 Fleer Update card. I owned four or five Kirby T-shirts, had a sweet Kirby Puckett jacket (it's probably worth a lot now!) and even called myself Kirbman. I wouldn't leave my house when the Twins were playing the Yankees because it was the only time I got to see Kirby play. I was obsessed beyond obsession with Kirby. He was fun to watch, he was always smiling, and he just made you feel good when you watched him play. I never saw Kirby get upset when he struck out, or ever argue with an empire. He was always happy, whether in the dugout, on base, or joking at the plate with the opposing team's catcher.

In 1991, Kirby Puckett provided me with the greatest sports moment of my life, (until the Vikings finally win a Super Bowl!). The Twins had made the ALCS, and I was so nervous they wouldn't make it to the World Series. Being the Jewish kosher kid I was back then, I actually prayed with my mother on a Sabbath before the ALCS. I guess it worked because the Twins made the World Series, and Kirby Puckett was the ALCS MVP. In perhaps the Greatest World Series I had ever seen, the Braves were up 3-2, and one win away from winning the championship. Kirby put the team on his back to make sure there would be a game 7. He made the famous catch against the glass to save a run. And in the tenth inning, he hit the home run to bring on game 7. Never in my life had I been so overcome with emotions from a sporting event of any kind. Boy, was I so happy that night! Jack Buck's "We'll see you tomorrow night" still sounds great fifteen years later! We all know the Twins won the World Series, and it was pure bliss.

I'd still cheer for Kirby and keep on collecting his merchandise. I even got my ear pierced and had the jeweler make me a #34 earring which I wore in my ear for senior year high school portrait. I'd get ribbed for being a fan of the fat guy, but I'd always stand my ground against the other kids in my class. When Kirby was a free agent and was possibly going to be a Red Sox or Phillie, I chewed on my fingernails so hard, they were bleeding. How could Kirby play for any other team but the Twins? Kirby actually took less money so he could stay in Minnesota where his heart was. I was so happy.

In June of 1996, after working a grueling job at FootAction (a summer job I needed to keep my busy after my freshman year of college), my mom picked me up and informed me that Kirby Puckett had been forced to retire due to glaucoma. My brother was in the car, and told me the news even made him cry (which was a surprise because he always had to chime in that Ken Griffey Jr. was better). Torn apart the entire care ride home I was, as I would no longer be able to enjoy watching Kirby Puckett play. Was his career good enough to be inducted in the hall of fame? That dreadful day in May was the last day that I ever cared about baseball again.

In 2000 as the Hall Of Fame inductees were to be named, I was refreshing every ten minutes so anxious to know if Kirby Puckett was going to make it. I figured if he didn't make it on his first try, he wasn't ever going to get in. My worries vanished when it was confirmed he made it. Of course this meant I had to be there for his induction in August of 2001. I'm proud to say I was there to cheer on my hero in Cooperstown. Seeing the exhibit honoring the newest inductee while being with my friends BS and Jason was pure magic. I was also so proud to be the only one wearing the Kirby blue retro 1984 jersey while walking the Cooperstown streets!

A few months later, Kirby was in the news, and not because he was signing autographs for a kid. We'd find out he beat his wife, had a mistress, fondled a woman in a restaurant, and that he didn't really care about the kids and that it was all an act (well this only comes from Kirby's ex wife and an explosive SI article a few years ago). This really got to me and made me question my love for this man. He also had pissed me off a few years back when I sent him a three page letter and card to be signed, and never got a response, but his latest actions made me sick to my stomach. Well, I forgave Kirby Puckett. Besides, I really had loved Kirby for what he did on the field, not off it.

On Monday, March 6th, I lost my hero. He meant so much to me, he represented a big part of my childhood. I've read so many tributes about him today, and there's nothing I can write now that hasn't already been said. I'm not much of a poet, and only a so-so story teller, so really all I can write is that I loved Kirby Puckett, and the world is a much sadder place with him gone. Thanks Kirby for giving me someone to look up to as a kid, for always making me smile, for representing what is great about sports, and for being my hero. I'll keep on wearing my Kirby jersey with pride(and try not to cry everytime I put it on!), and will be proud to tell stories about you with my kids. I don't think Dawn will let me, but I'd love to name my son Kirby! Rest in peace, and thank you for the memories, Kirbman!

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