Off the field he was a mere mortal, as we all are, given to the weaknesses and flaws that mortality entails. But when he was on the field - boy, what a ballplayer.
Kirby Puckett was the star of the second golden age of the Minnesota Twins (the first being the 1965-70 edition that featured Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, Tony Oliva and so many others). One writer called him the greatest Twin ever; another the most popular athlete ever in Minnesota. I don't know if either statement is true; but if not, it demeans not Puckett's legacy to say that he was one of the greatest, one of the most popular.
My enduring memory of Kirby Puckett comes from a late September game in 1987, when the Twins were driving for their first division title in 17 years. The team was lightly regarded when the season started, but had somehow (for they were plucky, but not great) clung to first place for most of the year. Now was the time of the season when every game mattered, and every seat was sold out.
The Twins were playing the Milwaukee Brewers, and were losing until Puckett came up late in the game and homered to tie the score. Amidst the sea of cheering fans, we could hardly see Puckett cross the plate, could barely catch a glimpse of him stepping out of the dugout to acknowledge the cheers with a curtain call.
The Twins won that game, and eventually the World Series - their first since the 20s, when they were the Washington Senators. They won another Series five years later. (And how many people know that the Twins have won twice as many Series as the storied Atlanta Braves?) Both times the key man on the field was Kirby Puckett. Other players might have contributed stellar moments at key points in time, but they all would have been useless without Puckett.
I spoke last night with someone who had been with the Twins organization during those championship years, and he said the same thing that so many others have said - Puckett was the same with everyone. Nobody treated his fans better than Puckett. Nobody was a better presence in the clubhouse than Puckett. "If I saw him today, he'd treat me the same way, as if I were his best friend," my friend told me.
Glaucoma cost him his eyesight, and his career. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2001, and things seemed to go downhill from there: a nasty divorce, rumors of threats, a trial for sexual misconduct (in which he was acquitted). It was hard to look at Kirby Puckett in quite the same way after that, and one of the saddest parts of his death is in not knowing whether he had truly gotten his life back in order. He had issues, as we all do; his sudden and premature passing indicates the wisdom of Christ's warning to keep the lamps lit at all times, in preparation for the appearance of the Bridegroom.
Detraction - speaking ill of the dead - is a Catholic sin, as is Presumption - assuming the dead to be in Heaven. We don't know what the final judgement is on Kirby Puckett, and that's as it should be. But we know that we can hope, and we also know that we can rest assured that Our Lord's judgement is always fair, always just, always right.
Unlike our mortal umpires, there are never any bad calls from Jesus. Let's just hope that Kirby Puckett got a good pitch to hit, and made the most of it. Requiescat in pace.