Tuesday, March 14, 2006

How Lucky We Were

I know I don't usually post here anymore, and I don't expect anyone to ever read this, but I wrote the piece below for my newspaper about Kirby. I thought it might be appropriate to put here as well. Thank you.

To an outsider, one of the most peculiar aspects of our culture must be the way that we treat people after death. No matter what events had transpired during a person’s life, we are determined to focus on the positives after their passing, sometimes to a fault.

With Kirby Puckett, however, this has not been difficult.

Ever since the greatest Twin of all-time passed away last week at age 46, it seems as though almost every resident of Minnesota has been transported back to October of 1991 at some point or another. That fateful Game 6 when the Legend of Kirby Puckett was solidified forever. As artificially constructed as some of our modern day “heroes” appear to be, Kirby’s World Series performance was truly the stuff of legends.

I hope that you have taken the time to read some of the pieces published in both the local and national media in the days following Puckett’s untimely passing. Both the quantity and quality of the Puckett tributes that have surfaced in the past week and a half has been nothing short of astounding. Almost everything that I have read (and I have read a lot) has been both tasteful and heartfelt, a difficult line to straddle when dealing with a public figure who was both as beloved and maligned as Kirby was.

As merely a would-be sports columnist in a tiny student newspaper, I feel there is little I can add to the many fitting tributes that have been heaped upon our fallen star already. I can’t claim to have really met Kirby personally (outside a couple autograph requests, which he naturally fulfilled) and I am too young to remember his outstanding play during the prime of his career.

As a diehard Twins fan and lifelong Minnesotan, however, I feel there is at least one area in which I am qualified to add to the conversation: Just how much the attitudes and practices of this one man meant to our entire state.

In short, Kirby Puckett, more than any other player in the franchise’s 45-year history, exemplified the “Twins Way” of playing the game. Kirby played baseball the way it was meant to be played – one hundred percent full-tilt, one hundred percent of the time. A product of the Chicago projects, he never took a single day in the major leagues for granted, even when he was earning millions of dollars each season. In a time when so many ethical questions cloud our beloved national pastime, Kirby Puckett will forever stand as a lasting reminder of all that is great about sports – not the money, fame or accolades, but rather the unbridled passion, joy and genuine love for the game.

Minnesota so loved Kirby Puckett not just because he was best player on the state’s only two championship teams. We didn’t love him only because he took Charlie Leibrant deep in Game 6, had a cannon for a throwing arm or smacked a franchise-record 2,304 hits in 12 big league seasons.

We loved him most because he did it all with that magical smile on his face and twinkle in his eye.

"No one loved being a baseball player more than Kirby,” said Orioles Hall-of-Famer Cal Ripken about his longtime opponent, and you didn’t have to know Puckett personally to know he was telling the truth.

On the baseball diamond, Kirby seemed invincible. He possessed the perfect combination of talent, work ethic and zeal for the game. Last week, we found out once and for all that, despite our fervent hopes to the contrary, this Minnesota legend was still just a man. And although the man might be gone forever, every Twins fan, young and old, can forever carry with them that swing, that hustle, that passion and that joy. Kirby Puckett was a one-in-million ballplayer, and our fair state was lucky enough to house his brilliance for many, many years.

Only now do we realize how much that really meant.