On May 8, 1984, a chubby, short outfielder who had a habit of swinging at the first pitch made his major league debut.
The Minnesota Twins — and Minnesota by and large — were never the same.
Kirby Puckett had four singles in his first game — batting leadoff! — and also contributed a stolen base in a 5-0 victory against what were then known as the California Angels. (In another interesting note, former Twin Rod Carew started at first base for the Angels.)
From that day, Puckett embarked on a 12-year career that left thousands of dogs named in his honor and thousands more kids who followed his form and hacked at the first offering in their Little League games.
I know I wasn’t the only one.
Of course, that hero worship changed in the years after baseball, when rumors about people seeing Kirby here and there kept popping up, the curtain coming all the way off in Frank Deford’s Sports Illustrated piece, “The Rise and Fall of Kirby Puckett.” Instantly, Puckett was no longer the pinnacle of hustle. He was the punchline to a hacky joke that guys made to their friends before they went into the bathroom. (Don’t pull a Kirby in there! Don’t do anything Puck wouldn’t do!)
Three years later — 12 days to the exact date of the SI article — Puckett was dead.
It’s a tragedy the way that Puckett fell to Earth, probably the athlete who in my eyes most typified the lunchpail, strong work ethic, “I’d play baseball for free if I could” ethos as I was growing up as a kid.
At first we all blamed Puckett for misleading us, but really, we were mad at ourselves — at least I know I was — for believing a Norman Rockwell portrait come to life, that a hard-working kid from Chicago who was once fired from a Ford Motor Company assembly line job for working too hard, would never have a bad day or a dark side, that all Kirby Puckett wanted to do was play baseball, sign autographs for the fans and smile until the next game started.
Kirby Puckett didn’t let everyone down. We let ourselves down.
We let ourselves down when we attached athletic glory to character, when we took a guy who told a team to jump on his back and then delivered in the clutch — we’ll see you tomorrow night! — and canonized him as a Saint. We built someone up to something they never aspired to be and then stoned him as he deflated back to Earth. Puckett was accused of doing some awful things, but he had to answer to his family and his God — if you believe in those things — for those discretions, not to the bleacher creatures lounging around the largely unpopulated Metrodome seats.
Him as a family man? I’ll take care not to attach my morality to any athlete or entertainer. Instead, I’ll always remember the joy Puckett brought to the field and the seemingly impossible things he was able to do once on it. He did his dirty work away from the ballpark, out of the limelight. When the cameras were on, he beamed, even at his farewell press conference, telling children that “just because I can’t see doesn’t mean God can’t answer prayers.”
When he stepped off the field, he didn’t need to tell us that SuperTwin couldn’t actually outrun a speeding bullet. We should have known all along ourselves. Puckett had his days, too.
(Image: Hat tip to Sports Illustrated’s Andy Gray, who runs Twitter.com/Si_Vault. I hope to create a Puckett-inspired shirt soon. I’m tossing around a few rough ideas. When I get them ironed out, I’ll post them over at the Empty Bandwagon Facebook page.)