Monday, March 13, 2006

It Was a Gas

What people who aren't baseball fans (specifically) or sports fans (in general) don't appreciate is how having your very own team to nostalgically root for through the years can provide such a vital thread to the fabric of your life.

You may be going through good times, you may be going through rough times but come spring baseball returns and there's not only a feeling of renewal, but there's also a feeling of remembering another time and place. It's with a lot of fondness and appreciation that I can still vividly feel the very first Twins game I went to. They lost 4-3 to the Milwaukee Brewers when pinch hitter Steve Brye left Jerry Terrell stranded on second base representing the tying run. Ray Corbin lost that game and I never forgave him. The memory of the hot sun and the smell of Met Stadium hot dogs are thankfully still part of who I am today.

My life and soul are totally unrecognizable today from the day in 1978 when I heard the news that my favorite baseball player, the Yankees captain Thurman Munson died in a plane crash. My complete being has changed from the August weekend in 1988 when Johnny Baynes and I roared in approval as Kirby Puckett went 10 for 11 in two games against the Brewers. Ever since that day I remember how Johnny called Kirby "Sunky Duckett" for no apparent reason and I not only see in my mind clear as a bell Kirby's churning running style but also his trademark ability to hit an unhitable pitch a very long way.

I remember the day the Twins drafted Kirby and sent him to their Visalia, California rookie league team. I also remember when they called him up to the majors. I read the news one evening as I went through the local newspapers in the Macalester College library as my friends were doing actual studying. For some reason I had a picture of him in my mind as a tall strapping white California kid. When I read the stories comparing his build with the Toy Cannon, Jimmy Wynn, I had to question where I got the mistaken notion of not only his race but his physical stature.

Kirby was never my favorite Twin. I was always more a Herbie fan. I think it always bothered me how all the little kids adored him and how the public address announcer Bob Casey focused attention on Kirby with his trademark introduction, "Number Thirteee Forrrrr, the centerfielder, Kirrrrbeeeee Puckett!!!!" It was just too easy for the casual fan to love Kirby with his teddy bear build and his flair for the dramatic.

Yet when his career was jeopardized by a horrible beaning, and when the next spring he was forced to retire with Glaucoma costing him his vision in one eye, I cried listening to the news conference of his retirement. It wasn't until then that I truly realized how lucky I had been to be a fan during his entire career as a Twin- getting the pleasure to see so many of the games that Kirby played in.

The decade before his arrival things were pretty bleak for the Twins. That also happened to be the decade I fell in love with the baseball. Kirby was quite the upgrade from the other Twins center fielders I had literally grown up watching, from Hollywood Rick Sofield to Willie Norwood, from Bobby Mitchell to Darrell Brown, I watched a lot of mediocre center fielders on a lot of mediocre teams before Kirby arrived and gave the team 12 wonderful Hall of Fame years.

So there I was completing last week's newsletter when I turned on the TV grateful that there was a televised spring training game to see. That's when I heard the somber tone of announcer Dick Bremer who broke the news of Kirby's stroke. A day later came the news that Kirby had died. I can't remember another celebrity death hitting me as hard since John Lennon was assassinated.

On a lunch break my friend drove me past the makeshift memorial placed on the Metrodome walk along Kirby Puckett Place. Fans had placed mementos along the railing in front of the dome. It was a simple bunch of thank yous from people Kirby had touched. Still the whole sad ending to his life, his Elvis like fall from grace was hard to shake. You watch a guy for years working his magic while just doing his job- with such happiness and joy- it's hard not to love and admire that. It's quite the rare gift to bring pleasure to so many with such charisma and cheer. In the end, the dark side of Kirby emerged but it's the sunny side that I'll always remember him by.

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