The state of Minnesota has produced its share of sporting icons over the years. From Bud Grant and Fran Tarkenton to the Broten brothers to Joe Mauer and numerous others, there are a lot of athletes that people immediately connect with Minnesota. But only one of those players can make Minnesota sports fans recall the dulcet tones of Bob Casey on the PA system at the Metrodome, speaking the words that would bring thousands of fans to their feet for twelve seasons.
"For the Twins. . .batting third. . .the center fielder, number 34. . .
Few fan bases have ever embraced an athlete the way that Minnesota Twins fans embraced Kirby Puckett during his time with the Twins, and for good reason. You see, Puckett was different. . .he exuberated "Minnesota nice," he was largely involved in the community, and he had a personality that was larger than life. The fact that he was pretty darn good at baseball didn't hurt matters, either.
But Puckett wasn't your typical athlete by any stretch. His body didn't look like it was chiseled out of granite, and he was listed at 5'8" in your program, which might have been giving him an extra inch or two. He wasn't the fastest guy, or the most powerful, or anything like that. . .but the guy worked harder than everyone else, hustled all the time, and left everything he had on the field every single day. Kirby Puckett is still the Twins' all-time leader in hits, runs, doubles, and total bases. At the time that he retired, his .318 career batting average was the highest by any right-handed American League hitter since the great Joe Dimaggio.
From a personal standpoint, Kirby Puckett gave me the opportunity to experience what I can definitely say is the high point of my life as a sports fan. In 1991, with the Twins and the Braves locked in what ESPN deemed to be the greatest World Series ever played, the Twins and Braves were tied, 3-3, in Game Six as the game went into the bottom of the 11th inning. A loss for the Twins would have given Atlanta the series victory, and Bobby Cox sent Charlie Liebrandt. . .or, as my Braves fan friend Stonz refers to him to this day, Charlie "F'ing" Liebrandt. . .to the mound to start the inning. The first man to the plate for the Twins was Kirby Puckett. Puckett had made a brilliant play to take away an extra base hit from Ron Gant early in the game, and that play was a huge part of the reason the game was still tied at that point.
Puckett took three pitches from Liebrandt, and with a 2-1 count. . .well, I can't do it justice, so I'll let Jack Buck give you one of the all-time great calls in Major League Baseball history. (It starts at around the 0:54 mark of the clip. . .not the best quality, I'll grant you, but it's the best that YouTube has to offer.)
Sufficient to say, watching the game with my family on our television in rural North Dakota, we were all quite happy to see Kirby sprinting around the bases, fist-pumping all the way. Heck, if you look over at the left-hand side of the page here, you see Kirby getting ready to hit that famous blast. But our house was pretty happy to have seen it happen. . .and that was before my dad told us that we had tickets to Game Seven.
Yes, thanks to Kirby Puckett, my father, my brothers, and I were all fortunate enough to attend the greatest game of the greatest World Series in the history of Major League Baseball. For that alone, I'll always remember the greatness of number 34. He provided so many other great memories for Twins fans everywhere, but on a personal level, that's at the top of my list (and, I'd suspect, at the top of the list of many others).
After his premature retirement due to glaucoma, Puckett sort of disappeared from view after a Sports Illustrated smear piece that, to this day, I can't believe Frank DeFord actually signed his name to. But no true baseball fan, and certainly no Twins fan worth their Dairy Queen Minnesota Twins helmet cup, remembers Kirby for that. They remember him for being the embodiment of Twins baseball. . .then, now, and, in all likelihood, for as long as the Minnesota Twins exist.
Five years. . .it's really hard to believe that it has been that long. Rest assured, nobody has forgotten what Kirby Puckett meant to the Minnesota Twins and to the Twin Cities in general.