Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, the buoyant, barrel-shaped outfielder with the perpetual smile who led the Minnesota Twins to 2 World Series titles in a 5-year span, died Monday March 6th at an Arizona hospital. Puckett, whose weight gain in recent years had concerned friends and former teammates, died after suffering a stroke early Sunday at his home in Scottsdale, AZ.
At the age of 45, Puckett is the 2nd-youngest person to die already a member of the Hall of Fame, Hall spokesman Jeff Idelson said. only Lou Gehrig, who died at the age of 37, was younger.
Kirby Puckett died at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix had been in intensive care since having surgery at another hospital. His family, friends and former teammates gathered Monday at St. Joseph's. He was given last rites and died in the afternoon, hospital spokeswoman Kimberly Lodge said. Puckett wanted his organs to be donated. In a statement, his family and friends thanked his fans for their thoughts and prayers.
Kirby is survived by his children, Catherine and Kirby Jr., and his ex-wife, Tonya. He was engaged to be married this summer. A makeshift memorial began to form Monday night outside the Metrodome, with a handful of bouquets laid on the sidewalk.
"This is a sad day for the Minnesota Twins, Major League Baseball and baseball fans everywhere," team owner Carl Pohlad said.
The youngest of nine children born into poverty in a Chicago housing project, Puckett was drafted by the Twins in 1982 and became a regular just 2 years later. He got 4 hits in his first major-league start and finished with 2,304 in only 12 seasons before an eye problem cut short his career in 1996.
Out of the game, the 5-foot-8 Puckett put on a considerable amount of weight, which concerned those close to him. "It's a tough thing to see a guy go through something like that and come to this extent," former teammate Kent Hrbek said Monday night. "That's what really hurt him bad, when he was forced out of the game," he said. "I don't know if he ever recovered from it."
"We were all concerned. We would tell him. But he enjoyed life. He enjoyed the size he was. That's who he was," said former Twins and current Chicago Cubs outfielder Jacque Jones, who never played with Puckett but was one of the many who considered him a mentor.
Another Minnesota great, Tony Oliva, was concerned about Puckett's condition, too. "The last few times I saw him, he kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger," Oliva said Sunday after learning about the stroke. "And we worried about him."
Though his power numbers weren't exceptional just 207 home runs and 1,085 RBI, Kirby Puckett was voted into Cooperstown on the first ballot in 2001. His respect and enthusiasm for the game factored in as much as his .318 average, 1989 batting title, six Gold Gloves, 10 All-Star Game appearances and two championship rings.
Puckett thrilled the crowd in Cooperstown when he said, "I'm telling you, anything is possible" during his induction speech. His plaque praised his "ever-present smile and infectious exuberance."
He made his mark on baseball's biggest stage, leading heavy underdog Minnesota to an unlikely seven-game victory over St. Louis in 1987 and then doing the same against Atlanta in one of the most thrilling Series in history in 1991.
The 1991 series marked the highlight in Puckett's career, as the Twins returned to the Metrodome that year after losing 14-5 in Game 5, needing to win 2 straight to get the trophy. Puckett famously walked into the clubhouse hours before Game 6, cajoling his teammates to jump on his back and let him carry them to victory. Sure enough, after robbing Ron Gant of an extra-base hit with a leaping catch against the wall in the third inning, Puckett homered off Charlie Leibrandt in the bottom of the 11th to force Game 7.
The next night, Minnesota's Jack Morris went all 10 innings to outlast John Smoltz and pitch the Twins to a 1-0 win for their second championship in 5 years.
"If we had to lose and if one person basically was the reason -- you never want to lose -- but you didn't mind it being Kirby Puckett. When he made the catch and when he hit the home run you could tell the whole thing had turned," Smoltz said Monday night. "His name just seemed to be synonymous with being a superstar. It's not supposed to happen like this," Smoltz said.
Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk echoed Smoltz's sentiment. "There was no player I enjoyed playing against more than Kirby. He brought such joy to the game. He elevated the play of everyone around him," Fisk said in a statement to the Hall.
Puckett's best year was 1988, when he batted .356 with 24 home runs, 42 doubles and 121 RBI. A contact hitter and stolen-base threat in the minors who hit only four homers in his first two major-league seasons, Puckett developed a power stroke in 1986 and went deep a career-best 31 times.
He became a fixture in the 3rd spot in the Twins lineup, a free-swinging center fielder with a strong arm and a flair for nifty catches despite a 5-foot-9, 220-pound frame that made him look more like a fullback. The man known simply as "Puck" was immensely popular. Fans loved his style, especially the high leg kick that preceded his swing. Public address announcer Bob Casey, who became a close friend, introduced him with vigor before every at-bat, "KIR-beeeeeeeeee PUCK-it."
As free agency and expansion turned over rosters more frequently in the 1990s, Puckett was one of the rare stars who never switched teams. "I wore one uniform in my career and I'm proud to say that," Puckett once said. "As a kid growing up in Chicago, people thought I'd never do anything. I've always tried to play the game the right way. I thought I did pretty good with the talent that I have."
Hit by a pitch that broke his jaw on his last at-bat of the 1995 season, Puckett woke up one morning the following spring and couldn't see out of his right eye. It was eventually diagnosed as glaucoma, forcing him to call it quits that July. "There are a lot of great players in this game, but only one Kirby," pitcher Rick Aguilera said when Puckett announced his retirement. "It was his character that meant more to his teammates. He brought a great feeling to the clubhouse, the plane, everywhere."
He received baseball's Roberto Clemente Man of the Year Award for community service that year, and the Twins -- trying to boost sagging attendance during some lean seasons in the late 1990s -- frequently turned to Puckett-related promotions. He had a spot in the front office and sometimes made stops at the state capitol to help stump for a new stadium.
Though he refused to talk pessimistically about the premature end of his career, Puckett's personal life began to deteriorate after that. Shortly after his induction to Cooperstown, his then-wife, Tonya, accused him of threatening to kill her during an argument -- he denied it -- and described to police a history of violence and infidelity. In 2003, he was cleared of all charges from an alleged sexual assault of a woman at a Twin Cities restaurant.
He kept a low profile after the trial and eventually moved to Arizona. His relationship with the organization ended in 2002, but the Twins kept trying to re-establish a connection and get him to come to spring training again as a guest instructor. "It's tough to take," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said from the team's spring training camp in Fort Myers, Fla. "He had some faults, we knew that, but when all was said and done he would treat you as well as he would anyone else. No matter who you were.
"When you're around him, he makes you feel pretty good about yourself. He can make you laugh. He can do a lot of things that can light up a room. He's a beauty," Ryan said. Asked what he would remember the most from their playing days, Hrbek quickly answered, "Just his smile, his laughter and his love for the game."