In 1991—the year Kirby Puckett and the Minnesota Twins won the greatest World Series I’ve ever seen—I was short, fat, and hitting ninth for my Pony League team. I spent my time creatively calculating my batting average to keep it above the Mendoza line and imagining the fantasy world where I made the majors. Puckett, who looked like a fire hydrant, was the only real ballplayer who lived in that world with me.
Like me, Puckett stood 5-feet-8 and told people he weighed 210 pounds, but that was only one aspect of his appeal. Plenty of players in that era didn’t look the part. Bob Hamelin, for instance, resembled my Uncle Larry, and he was Rookie of the Year in 1994. The difference was that Puckett played baseball as if he inhabited Eric Davis’ perfect body. Maybe high-achieving slobs like Hamelin were an inspiration to the physically mediocre, but Puckett was a miracle, and a miracle was what Pony League bench warmers were looking for.
Churning his Toulouse-Lautrec legs, Puckett could steal bases and leg out triples. He leapt tall outfield fences and took away home runs like Torii Hunter, the Twins current centerfielder, who is six inches taller but five pounds lighter than Puckett was. With his alligator arm, Puckett recorded a staggering 19 assists in 1985.
He could hit, too—for average and for power. He led the league in hits four times, and after collecting a grand total of four home runs in his first two seasons, he averaged more than 20 a year for the next decade. (One advantage of being shaped like a tree stump is that no one suspects steroids when your power numbers jump suddenly.)
When Puckett died Monday after suffering a stroke, the obituary writers emphasized the jolly demeanor that went along with his Santa Claus appearance. They remembered Puckett for the joy he brought to the game, and it’s true; it was obvious how much he loved baseball and enjoyed playing it. From the end of the Pony League bench, we loved him for this, too, because he seemed to know how lucky he was. Still, Puckett wasn’t just a smiling doofus. He’d rip your heart out for a single, and it was the combination that made him irresistible.
Compare Puckett and his two World Series-winning Minnesota teams to Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire’s Oakland A’s of the same era. McGwire had the size and aspect of the jerk who stuffed you in a locker after gym class. Canseco, the most talented baseball player on the planet, didn’t care about anything. They played in three World Series in a row and inexcusably lost two of them.
The Twins were more likable and more interesting. Starring Puckett and the good-but-not-great trio of Tom Brunansky, Gary Gaetti, and Kent Hrbek, Minnesota went from first (1987) to last (1990) and back to first (1991). The 1991 World Series against the Atlanta Braves was the most thrilling sporting event of my childhood. It went seven games, five of which were decided by one run and three of which went into extra innings. In Game 6, Puckett made a circus catch to kill a Braves rally and homered to end the game in the 11th inning. But following that triumph, Puckett’s story became a series of increasingly depressing episodes.
By 1996, when Puckett woke up one morning toward the end of spring training and couldn’t see, Minnesota was no longer a contending team. He was diagnosed with glaucoma, and he retired that summer after undergoing a few unsuccessful surgeries. It was sad, because apart from his eyesight he still had a few good years left, but it wasn’t tragic. Puckett wasn’t Tony Conigliaro, who was only 22 when he got beaned in the face in 1967. He’d had a great career, a Hall of Fame career, and he made the right decision to retire.
At his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2001, Puckett’s fans noticed two things. On the one hand, he stole the show and channeled the classy Lou Gehrig when he said, “It may be cloudy in my right eye, but the sun is shining in my left.” On the other hand, he’d gained about a hundred pounds and looked like crap. Maybe he didn’t know how to live without baseball after all.
Then, in 2003, Sports Illustrated published Frank Deford’s devastating cover article, “The Rise and Fall of Kirby Puckett,” which revealed that—far from being the poster man-child of pure baseball joy—Puckett was an adulterer, a harasser, and an abuser. His wife had made horrible public accusations while divorcing him, one of his girlfriends took out a restraining order against him, and a woman he allegedly groped in a restaurant bathroom filed charges against him (he was acquitted).
Now he’s dead at 45, and the obituaries mention but don’t lead with his “troubles.” In fact, they give the story a nice arc. We like our athletes flawed. They so obviously belong on the field that they can’t cope off it. Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden used drugs, Pete Rose gambled, and Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams were mean-spirited jerks. Puckett’s former teammate Jeff Reardon, the great closer, was arrested for robbing a jewelry store last December after losing his mind on anti-depressants. These human frailties prove that athletes were meant to play sports, not live in society. The story, then, is that a broken-hearted Puckett ate himself to death trying to fill the gaping hole left by the end of his playing days.
But is it really just a flaw if you strangle your wife with an electrical cord? True, we don’t know what really happened between Puckett and his accusers. Moreover, he was cleared of the sexual-assault charges brought against him (though it’s clear the jurors didn’t believe his story). For the most part, however, I have to admit that I believe he did what they say he did. So, what do you do when you find out your effervescent childhood hero is a violent, potentially evil man? You can repudiate him, forgive him, or try to compartmentalize and love the ballplayer while deploring his actions. I’m trying to do the latter.