Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Death of an Immortal

by Alan Eliot

On his Hall of Fame plaque, it reads:

Kirby Puckett
Minnesota, A.L., 1984-1995

A proven team leader with an ever-present smile and infectious exuberance who led the Twins to World Series titles in 1987 and 1991. Over 12 seasons hit for power and average, batting .318 with 414 doubles and 207 home runs. Also a prolific run producer, scored 1,071 runs and drove in 1,085 in 1,783 games. A six-time gold glove winner who patrolled center field with elegance and style, routinely scaling outfield walls to take away home runs. The 10-time all-star's career ended abruptly due to irreversible retinal damage in his right eye.

Kirby Puckett died yesterday of complications from a stroke. He was eight days shy of his 46th birthday.

I am shocked. Saddened. The news is still just barely sinking in.

Few ballplayers received the reverance and respect that Puckett did during his career. The fact that his Hall of Fame plaque's first sentence includes the words "ever-present smile" and "infectious exuberance" speaks volumes. He was the pudgy player with the permanent smile on his face, who could play the game with such a mixture of confidence, grace and enthusiasm that it was impossible not to love him.

It is hard to believe someone so full of life can die.

It seems like just yesterday- I was 13 when Puckett robbed Ron Gant of what seemed to be a sure home run in the 1991 World Series- and when he led the Twins to the improbable wins of games six and seven. That picture of Puckett leaping at the wall is still the one etched in my mind when I think of him.

The death of a Hall of Famer always hits the baseball community hard. When he is claimed by old age, the sad news is tempered with a sense of fairness. "He lived a long life," you say to yourself. "And boy was he a good player." His glory days came and went long before you did- by the time you learned to love baseball, his stats were already part of the permanent record. As far as you know, he was always destined for baseball greatness.

The passing of Kirby Puckett, on the other hand, is much tougher to comprehend. At 45, he is the second youngest Hall of Famer to die- second only to Lou Gehrig, who lost his battle with ALS at 37. Untimely deaths of our sports heroes always sting more. You grew up with them. Their highlights are not in grainy black and white film, but in the full technicolor of your memory. You remember when those highlights were news. And you remember when this man reigned supreme over the greatest game.

And that's how it is with baseball greats. We place them on pedestals, until they are less mortal men than legends. In our imagination, they are always hitting .406, or belting #715. We can do this, because to us, at some level, these men will always be the young baseball players that they were. Their names and feats pass our lips with such a sense of timelessness that we make them- the plays as well as the players- immortal.

In his lifetime, Kirby Puckett the man was held to a standard even he couldn't live up to. Like all men, he was not perfect- as the allegations of misconduct that came out after his retirement will attest.

Kirby Puckett the legend, however, will forever be robbing a home run or standing stalwart at the plate, ready to go to battle. And among the pantheon of greats, he'll be the one with a grin so big you'll swear it's gotta hurt.

I'll part with an excerpt from Puckett's 2001 Hall of Fame speech:
There may be a few people out there who remember a time when the word on Kirby Puckett was that he was too short or didn't have enough power to make it to the big leagues...And I want you to remember the guiding principles of my life: You can be what you want to be. If you believe in yourself , and you work hard because anything, and I'm telling you anything is possible...And don't feel sorry for yourself if obstacles get in your way...And I faced odds when Glaucoma took the bat out of my hands. But I didn't give in or feel sorry for myself. I've said it before and I'll say it again: it may be cloudy in my right eye, but the sun is shining very brightly in my left eye.

Kirby, you will be missed.

Alan Eliot's column appears alternate Tuesdays


Post a Comment

<< Home

"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine