For most Twins fans, the first player we think of is Kirby Puckett. Kirby Puckett is arguably the most popular player in Twins history, due to his combination of on-field performance, charisma and big-time clutch moments. Game 6 of the 1991 World Series was probably his defining moment and I could describe what happened, but you are all probably already visualizing it in your heads, so I’ll save myself some typing. On a personal level, Kirby Puckett is my favorite player of all time and someone that I will irrationally defend even when I know that some of my arguments are wrong. I even tried to use his giant leg kick in my own swing, before slowly realizing that I am not the amazing athlete that Puckett was.
January 12, 1982 was a significant date in Twins history because it was the date when Puckett was drafted by the Twins. He was selected 3rd overall in the January part of the MLB draft calendar. You’ll have to forgive me for not being born yet, but my understanding of how the draft worked before 1986 was that anyone not drafted in the June draft would be eligible for a second draft in January of the following year. Puckett was not drafted in June of 1981 and therefore was eligible for the January 1982 draft. When Puckett is referred to as the 3rd overall pick in 1982, there is a bit of a lie of omission involved, as these January drafts were really a bunch of leftover players from the previous draft class.
Therefore, Puckett was not considered a big-time prospect. He was small, which probably was the main reason why he was not drafted in the first place. However, once he was given his chance, he quickly showed that he was a player to keep an eye on. His 1982 and 1983 minor league seasons were more than somewhat impressive. His 1983 in Visalia was especially impressive, as Puckett demonstrated good power, great speed and enough promise to be moved all the way up to AAA to start 1984. He didn’t last in AAA, as he was called up to play for the Twins in May of 1984. Now a Twin, and a Twin to stay, he joined the nucleus of Twins players that would eventually win World Series titles in 1987 and 1991.
Well, Puckett was more than just part of the nucleus. I won’t go so far as to call him the whole nucleus, as that would take away from important players like Kent Hrbek, Frank Viola, Gary Gaetti and so forth, but he was certainly a larger part. I should take this moment to point out that I am not a Chemist, but that may go without saying. Kirby Puckett was THE Twin of that era. Who doesn’t remember that iconic catch/home run (that I said I wouldn’t describe) in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series? Memento, perhaps, but he just couldn’t form new memories, so, yeah. Puckett put the team on his back that night (as much as any baseball player can really do that), and we all saw them the next night, celebratin’ another championship.
September 28, 1995 was another significant date in Twins’ history, but for terrible, terrible reasons. First off, I remember this date distinctly because it happened to be my 13th birthday. Obviously a huge Twins fan, part of my celebration involved watching the Twins game that day. I’m pretty sure I’ll never forget how Kirby (ok, sentimental story, so I get one use of just his first name) toppled over like Von Kaiser when that Dennis Martinez pitch hit him the face. I don’t blame Martinez, because Puckett didn’t either. In fact, when Puckett developed glaucoma (actually genetic, and possibly not even related to this pitch) and was forced to retire, he specifically asked the fans and media not to feel sorry for him.
The saddest part of Puckett’s story is obviously how it ended. He gained too much weight for his body to handle and he went through personal issues that definitely hurt his previously sterling reputation. A few of the allegations against him are things that I would never be able to forgive him for as a person. That is very hard for me as a person that absolutely admired him as a child. Ultimately, I was a fan of Kirby Puckett as a player, not a person. When I idolized him, I wasn’t even aware of the charity work and community work that made him a person that many looked up to off the field. Some cannot separate the person from the player, but maybe I am so jaded to the real lives of professional athletes (and really just humans in general) that I can. When people are critical of Puckett for off the field reasons, I cannot defend him.
As a baseball player, his legacy seems to be a bit tainted as well. When annual Hall of Fame articles surface, Puckett is often included on lists of undeserving enshrined players. Personally, I think those articles miss the big picture. Puckett’s career was taken from him, well before it should have been. It is easy to forget that his final season was a very successful one. He hit .314 and posted an OPS+ of 130. He was on his way to 3000 hits and that probably would have been my favorite moment as a Twins fan. To conclude that Puckett wasn’t one of the best players of his era is nit-picky at best and just plain wrong at worst. I will defend his baseball career to anyone, just try me.
It seems very sad to think about all this right now. In some wonderful alternate universe, Kirby Puckett is managing an extremely lucky high school team in the Twin Cities or Chicago or maybe he is even managing an MLB team. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but his achievements aren’t questioned, but rather celebrated. Puckett’s personal demons are under control, or never even existed in the first place. His eyesight wasn’t taken from him and he maintained the physique that he showed off in this baseball card. But most importantly, in this universe, Kirby Puckett is alive and around to share the joy and excitement that he demonstrated as a player.
Things did not end as Kirby Puckett could have possibly wanted, or as any of his fans would have expected. However, we shouldn’t feel sorry for him, because that is not what he wanted. I can’t defend some of the things that Kirby Puckett did as a person, but I can defend his baseball career about as well as anyone. Regardless of how you feel about Puckett as a player or person, January 12, 1982 is one of the most significant dates in Twins’ history.
Jeff Passan wrote a really great article about Puckett back in 2006 and you can read it here. Also, if you want to read more about glaucoma and how Puckett worked to educate people about it, you can click here.