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The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly: Minnesota Twins
Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments from Minnesota Twins History
By Steve Aschburner
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2008 Steve Aschburner
All rights reserved.
There has been, among some of the baseball purists and the numbers crunchers and, always, the crowds on both coasts, a mild backlash in the past couple of years regarding Kirby Puckett's rightful place in baseball's Hall of Fame.
Some of the second-guessers aren't sure he belongs at all, given lifetime statistics that stopped as abruptly as Puckett's magnificent career did when he lost the sight in his right eye days before the 1996 season. Others accept Puckett's enshrinement, but think sentiment swept him in prematurely in his first year of eligibility in 2001. These folks acknowledge that Puckett put together a Hall of Fame résumé but act as if he should have been scheduled for a second or third interview.
To which we can say here: hogwash.
Puckett didn't reach 3,000 hits. He didn't hit .400, slug 500 home runs, win a Most Valuable Player award, or hit safely in 57 consecutive games. But he did one thing over the span of his career better than anyone else in the game, maybe better than anyone since (and this will give it away) Ernie Banks.
Puckett epitomized the joy of baseball.
He played the way most fans like to think they would play, if they had the chance and were good enough and, naturally, didn't let the pressure get to them or get waylaid by the nicks and the bruises or start to treat a game like a job.
Puckett brought joy with him to the ballpark early each day and usually wouldn't let it go home much before midnight. He toted it along in each inning, into the field and to the plate. It was obvious in the easy, accessible way he made fans and friends out of strangers or bonded with rival players, deftly separating the fraternization from the competition.
And fortunately, before he left the game and long before he left the Earth so suddenly, too young, in March 2006, Puckett understood fully what his greatest asset was.
On an invitation-only trip to Cooperstown, New York, in May 2001, to get acquainted with the Hall of Fame a few months before his induction ceremony, Puckett took a few minutes to talk with local reporters. He told them he sometimes thought about how great it would be to possess Lou Brock's speed, Henry Aaron's power, and Roberto Clemente's arm. In other words, the absolute best pieces from the parts bins, most likely for a chassis slightly taller than 5'8'.
"But personality," Puckett said, "I get to have my personality."
Puckett became, during his career with the Minnesota Twins and for at least the first five years afterward, the most popular athlete in the state's sporting history. He did it with his accomplishments, sure; as an anchor of the 1987 World Series team that brought Minnesota its first major championship since the old George Mikan Lakers, Puckett's value was undeniable. But he also did it by bringing and keeping the fans close, smiling without selling out, even failing at times in ways they could appreciate.
"In so many ways, professional athletes are living the dream of the average guy," former Twins general manager Andy MacPhail said after learning of Puckett's Hall election. "Yet so many athletes today seem to approach everything they do as if it is a terrible imposition. As if every day is a battle. Kirby conveyed just the opposite. He let everybody know that he was having fun playing the game. He was the beacon for baseball at a time when the game needed it."
Said Puckett: "I just played baseball like every game was my last. Some days, I came to work and [Kent] Hrbek and Lauds [Tim Laudner] and Molly [Paul Molitor] can tell you: I didn't feel like working, just like anybody else. But I'd take a couple aspirin, take batting practice and start sweating, and, when the bell rang, whether it was 1:05 or 7:05 or whatever time it was, I was ready to play."
Harmon Killebrew, "Mr. Twin" in the franchise's pre-Puckett era, once said of the round center fielder, "He's just a down-to-earth nice guy. The old ballplayers, we'd use the term that he's a throwback to the olden days. ... He's never too busy to talk to people and say 'Hello.'"
The story of Puckett's career has been told often and well, to the point that some surely know its highlights by heart:
There was his start in Chicago's grim Robert Taylor Homes project on the city's South Side, one of nine kids. They were raised and steered away from most of the mayhem by Catherine and William, two strong parents whose values and lessons trumped the neighborhood's harsh economics or any easy excuses. "Sixteen-story buildings with 10 apartments per floor and two elevators," Puckett once shared. "The elevators would go out, and what floor were we on? The 14. My mother would go get the groceries, and then she would put together an assembly line with us, the nine kids, to get the groceries up all those floors to our apartment."
Growing up so close to old Comiskey Park, with the National League Cubs a subway ride away on the North Side, Puckett gravitated to baseball and some of the local teams' stars. That meant Banks, Billy Williams, and, from the 1920s and '30s, short, squatty Hack Wilson. "I found out Hack was only 5'6', 5'7', and he hit 56 home runs and 190 RBIs [later changed to 191]," said Puckett, who kept a photo of Wilson in his clubhouse stall for years. "He was a little guy who did big things."
Puckett played some college baseball, initially at Bradley in Peoria, then at Triton College outside of Chicago. Drafted by Minnesota in 1982, Puckett was a quick study for a needy team, so on May 7, 1984, he flew from Portland, Maine, through Atlanta, to join the Twins in Anaheim. That produced Puckett's famous empty-wallet cab ride from LAX to the Angels' ballpark in Orange County. He owed a $60 or $85 tab (the amount keeps changing), so Puckett left one of his suitcases as collateral with the cabbie while he bummed the money in the visitors' clubhouse.
At some point, some Twins wondered about this Puckett kid they had heard so much about. "This was the phenom we've been waiting for?" Randy Bush said after getting his first glimpse.
Well, uh, yes. And Puckett showed it the next night, rapping four hits to become only the ninth player to do that in his big-league debut. Eventually, he would become the first player in baseball's modern era to get 2,000 hits in his first 10 full seasons.
Always a free-swinger at the plate but far from a finished product when he arrived, Puckett added a distinctive leg kick to his batting stance as a timing and weight-shifting mechanism, a technique taught to him by Twins great Tony Oliva. It triggered a surge in power, too, with Puckett soaring from no home runs in 1984 to 31 two years later.
Rather quickly from that point, as both the team and its center fielder improved, so did Puckett's achievements, such as 10 All-Star selections, six Gold Gloves, and the 1989 AL batting title. He piled up five seasons with at least 200 hits, three in which he scored 100 runs or more, three in which he drove in at least 100, and six seasons hitting 20 homers or more. And on the last weekend in August 1987, Puckett single-handedly tore up Milwaukee, going 10-for-11, including a line shot off ace reliever Dan Plesac that came at him out of a shadow and still ended up about six rows beyond the outfield fence. "I was unconscious," Puckett said.
Defensively, Puckett was robbing wannabe home runs at the Metrodome long before Torii Hunter made it his trademark. Playing deep to begin with, he would churn his sturdy legs back to the warning track, then leap in front of the wall or the Plexiglas. That's exactly what he did, in fact, to take an extra-base hit away from Ron Gant in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. That's the day, in the hours prior to first pitch, he famously told his Twins teammates to "jump on my back."
A couple of years later, Puckett said, "If I had written it up myself, it couldn't have turned out any better. I was just instigating something when I said it, because everyone was so tight, and as soon as I said it, I could see people give a sigh of relief. 'Oh, Puck's going to take care of things.' We relaxed and played ball."
Part of Puckett's appeal, beyond his personality, was his shape, which always looked (deceptively so) more cuddly than coiled. Children were drawn to him because he was built like a mascot. And let's face it, he had a great sports name, especially as bellowed by longtime Twins P.A. announcer Bob Casey. Somehow, had Puckett been christened "Joe Jones," none of this would have been as much fun.
In 1993 Minnesota slipped below .500 and stayed there for Puckett's final three seasons. The core of the two World Series teams broke apart bit by bit until he was the last one left. In 1995, at age 35, Puckett batted .314 with 23 home runs and 99 RBIs, missing his shot at 100 when Dennis Martinez hit him in the face with a pitch, ending his season a few games early.
The following March, he got two hits off Atlanta's Greg Maddux in the final spring training game, then woke up the next morning with a big dark spot in his right eye. The diagnosis: glaucoma. After tests, treatment, and surgery, Puckett was told that his playing days were over.
The bad news sparked sadness, anger, suspicions that Martinez's beanball might have contributed to Puckett's ailment, and much gnashing of teeth all around. Others cried. Puckett, as far as anyone ever knew, did not.
"My god, you have a guy struck down in his prime, and never once have I read or heard him exhibit any self-pity," MacPhail said. "There was no 'what-could-have-been' from him. Kirby has always learned to live in the moment."
Said manager Tom Kelly: "He handled it better than anybody. We're all dying here, and he's laughing and joking and trying to make everybody feel okay. The guy lost his eyesight and he's cheering us up."
Said Puckett: "What else am I supposed to do? It's like playing poker. You get dealt a hand. You've got a choice to either hold 'em or fold 'em. I'm not a folder."
Puckett went to work as a vice president with the Twins. Five years flew by and the baseball writers elected him into the Cooperstown shrine. He was one of the most popular inductees in recent memory, with both fans and fellow Hall of Famers.
The next, and last, five years of Puckett's life flew by, too. But they weren't nearly as happy. His marriage to wife Tonya failed. He was accused of repeated infidelities by both his ex-wife and an ex-mistress. Puckett also got snared in an embarrassing, demeaning sexual assault trial after an alleged incident at a nightclub. A jury acquitted him but couldn't erase all the bad publicity the charges had generated.
The Twins carefully, corporately, distanced themselves from the greatest player in their history. That was followed soon enough by Puckett's self-imposed exile down to Scottsdale, Arizona. His weight ballooned, and those friends who didn't lose contact with him worried about his health.
He never opened that car wash he had talked so excitedly about early in his career, a simple plan for a meaningful postbaseball existence. But he did have a new fiancée, a plan to shed some pounds, and a chance at a fresh start.
On March 5, 2006, Kirby Puckett suffered a massive stroke at his Arizona home. He died the next day, a week before his 46 birthday.
"Baseball owes me nothing," the Twins' former center fielder said several years before his death. "I owe everything to baseball. My whole life as a kid, it's what I saw and what I wanted to play, and I did it every day. And when it was over, I missed it just for a little bit. Then I went home and looked in the mirror and said, 'Puck, you couldn't have done any better than you did.'"
1987 WORLD CHAMPIONS
With Texas in town for a weekend series in mid-August, deep into the 2007 schedule, the Twins celebrated the 20th anniversary of their first World Series championship team. In many ways, it was a remix of the 10-year anniversary celebrated back in 1997, with the same sort of nostalgia, fond memories, and renewed friendships, with a few additional harmless jokes about waistlines, wrinkles, and receding hairlines.
In other ways, it was completely different: Kirby Puckett wasn't around for this latest reunion, having died in March 2006 after suffering a massive stroke at the age of 45. Joe Niekro, a pitcher on that '87 team, had died seven months after Puckett, at age 61, from a brain aneurysm. Bullpen closer Jeff Reardon and his family had suffered serious setbacks — the loss of son Shane, a battle with mental illness for Jeff — and only recently were finding ways to be happy again. Real life and time were intruding on all of them, in ways large and small that they hadn't back in 1997.
And then, in at least one way, the anniversaries in both 2007 and 1997 were misnomers entirely, a little false advertising to those who remembered best what unfolded back in 1987.
That is to say, when the Minnesota Twins won their first World Series title, they didn't really have a championship season. They had more of a championship run. Or a championship stretch drive.
In reality, the most memorable "season" in franchise history lasted less than two months. On August 28, after Milwaukee's Chris Bosio beat them 1–0 for their ninth loss in 10 games, the Twins' lead in the AL West dwindled from a high of five games (August 18) to, well, none; Oakland (66–62) was in a virtual tie with Minnesota (67–63). But by October 25, this unlikely champion had done enough, at precisely the right times, to win its first division title since 1970, beat the heavily favored Detroit Tigers in five games in the AL Championship Series, and turn the most maligned ballpark in the major leagues into the game's greatest home-field advantage.
After a largely ordinary 85–77 regular season, the Twins beat the more postseason-savvy St. Louis Cardinals, four games to three, by winning four times at the Metrodome. No champion in Series history, to that point, had ever finished more poorly over 162 games (in 2006, the Cardinals went 83–78 before winning it all). And just like that, a raucous bunch of fun-loving players, bonded at the core through several years of losing, earned a special place in the state's sports history.
More special than the old Minneapolis Lakers' five NBA titles more than a generation earlier. More special than the Vikings' four (unsuccessful) trips to the Super Bowl. More special, too, than when the Twins did it all over again in 1991.
"I talk more about '87, I think, than I do '91," said Kent Hrbek, the hometown guy from Bloomington who played first base for both World Series teams. "I guess because it was the first one. People always ask me which one I had more fun in, which one I liked best. It's not that I liked the '87 one best, it's just that we kind of all grew up together in the minor leagues, the '87 team, and went through the rough spots together in the early '80s when we were terrible and lost 100 ballgames."
That core included the likes of Hrbek, third baseman Gary Gaetti, catcher Tim Laudner, outfielder Randy Bush, and pitcher Frank Viola. Puckett arrived in 1984, and fellows such as Greg Gagne, Steve Lombardozzi, and Sal Butera had taken their share of lumps.
"The management has stuck with us for a long time," Viola said in spring training, calling it a put-up or shut-up season. "How many years are they going to go with Bruno, Herbie, G-Man, and myself if we don't win?"
The Twins had a 33-year-old general manager, Andy MacPhail, and a 37-year-old field manager, Tom Kelly, working in tandem for their first full season. Other pieces were added that were just as valuable: on February 3, MacPhail completed a deal that had been in the works for months, acquiring Reardon and catcher Tom Nieto from Montreal for pitcher Neal Heaton, catcher Jeff Reed, and two minor leaguers. On March 31, a week before the season opener, the Twins sent three minor leaguers to San Francisco for outfielder Dan Gladden.
With the scrappy, aggressive Gladden leading off the batting order and the glowering, hard-throwing Reardon closing out games from the bullpen, the Twins for once were in a position to seize control of their games' beginnings and endings.
The timing was right for Minnesota in another way: by the time they faced St. Louis in October, the Twins were the seventh different franchise in seven seasons to win the AL pennant. Whatever the fears had been about free agency tilting the playing field toward a few major markets, and however that would play out in the next decade or so, there was a certain randomness at work, a parity, through most of the 1980s.
Make no mistake, the first four or five months of the regular season had their share of highlights: Hrbek's bases-loaded single in the tenth inning to win the opener and spark a sweep of Oakland. Gaetti's single in the ninth to beat California 8–7 on April 25, the first sellout in the Metrodome's five years of existence. A doubleheader sweep at Detroit on a blistering May 31, outscoring the Tigers 20–8 that day.
There was a 4–3 victory in 10 innings on June 10 that completed a sweep of Kansas City, the rival that led the AL West when the month began; the Twins were never worse than tied for the division lead after that. "They won, they're in first. Fine," Royals outfielder Danny Tartabull said. "We'll see them in October."
Excerpted from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly: Minnesota Twins by Steve Aschburner. Copyright © 2008 Steve Aschburner. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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