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Kirby Puckett (March 14 1960 – March 6 2006) was a center fielder in Major League Baseball who played his entire major-league career with the Minnesota Twins from 1984 to 1995. Puckett led the Twins to World Series titles in 1987 and 1991, the only two world championships for the franchise since their move to Minnesota in 1961.
His gregarious personality and dynamic style of play endeared him to fellow players and fans alike. He is the Twins franchise's all-time leader (1961-present) in career hits, runs, doubles and total bases, and his .318 career batting average was the highest by any right-handed American League batter in the second half of the 20th century.
He was the fourth baseball player during the 20th century to record 1,000 hits in his first five full calendar years in Major League Baseball, and one of only two to record 2,000 hits during his first ten full calendar years. After being forced to retire at age 35 due to loss of vision in one eye from glaucoma, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001 in his first year of eligibility.
Early life Edit
Puckett was born in Chicago, Illinois, and raised in the Robert Taylor Homes housing project. Unheralded in high school, he worked in a Ford plant and as a census taker before briefly attending Bradley University where he was named to the first team All Missouri Valley Conference as a freshman. He transferred to Triton College and was subsequently drafted by the Twins in the first round of the 1982 baseball draft.
Early career: 1982–1990 Edit
Puckett started his minor league career with the Elizabethton Twins in Tennessee in 1982. At the time, Puckett was a slap hitter and outstanding defensive center fielder and produced a .382 batting average in his first season. After his time in the minor leagues, including a stint with the Visalia Oaks, he was promoted to the major leagues earning a spot on the Minnesota Twins roster on May 8, 1984. Called up to replace center fielder Jim Eisenreich, who had a condition that eventually was revealed to be Tourette syndrome, Puckett quickly proved himself. On May 8, he became only the 9th player in history to record 4 hits in the first full game of a career, by going 4 for 5 against the California Angels.
He was one of the league's best rookies in 1984, batting .296 and leading all American League center fielders in outfield assists, with 16. He had a similar season in 1985, when he played in every game and batted .288. Coincidentally, in 1985, the song "Centerfield" by John Fogerty was released as a single. The single created an immediate association in Minnesota with the electric performance and humble personality of the team's rapidly rising center fielder.
In his third season, Puckett burst into stardom. It all began in the off-season, when he worked with hitting coach Tony Oliva on driving the ball for distance. Despite his small stature, 5 foot 8 inch (1.73 m), Puckett had immense strength and the quick wrists of a power hitter. In 1986, he added this to his game, blasting 31 home runs, raising his average to .328 and winning the first of his six Gold Glove Awards for outstanding defensive play.
In 1987, Puckett led the Twins to the World Series. Their second since relocating to Minnesota (1965 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers) came after batting .332 with 28 home runs and 99 RBI in the regular season. His performance was even more impressive in the seven-game Series upset over the St. Louis Cardinals, batting a whopping .357.
During that championship year, Puckett put on his best performance on August 30 in Milwaukee against the Brewers, when he went 6-for-6 with two home runs, one off Juan Nieves in the third and the other off closer Dan Plesac in the ninth. He also denied Robin Yount a grand slam with a catch in center field.
Puckett had his best season, statistically speaking, in 1988, hitting .356 with 24 home runs and 121 RBI, to finish third in the MVP balloting for the second straight season. The .356 batting average was the highest by a right handed hitter since Joe Dimaggio hit .357 in 1941. The Twins won 91 games, six more than in their championship season the year before, but finished second to the powerful Oakland Athletics in the American League West.
Puckett won the AL batting title in 1989 with a mark of .339, making him the first right-handed batter to win the title in eight years. In April 1989, he earned his 1,000th hit, the fourth player in the 20th century to do so in his first five seasons. He continued to play well in 1990, but the Twins slipped all the way down to last place in the AL West.
Late career: 1991–1995 Edit
In 1991, the Twins got back on the winning track and Puckett led the way by batting .319, eighth in the league. Minnesota surged past Oakland in midseason and captured the division title, then upset the favored Toronto Blue Jays in five games in the American League Championship Series. Puckett batted .429 with two home runs and six RBI in the playoffs to win MVP honors.
1991 World SeriesEdit
The 1991 World Series was ranked by ESPN to be the best ever played, with five of its games being decided by a single run, four games decided in the final at-bat and three games going into extra innings. Both the Twins and their opponent, the Atlanta Braves, had finished last in their respective divisions in the year before winning their league pennant, something that had never been done before. Going into Game 6, the Twins trailed three games to two and had to win to stay alive. Puckett gave the Twins an early lead by scoring Chuck Knoblauch with a triple, and helped to hold off an Atlanta rally in the third inning with a leaping catch off the plexiglas outfield wall that stole a sure double by Ron Gant (in later seasons, the plexiglas would be removed). The game went into extra innings, and in the first at-bat of the bottom of the 11th, Puckett hit a dramatic walk-off home run on a 2-1 count off Charlie Leibrandt to keep his team alive, rocketing a hanging changeup into the left-center seats. After his retirement, the seat occupied by the fan who caught the ball was replaced by one made of gold-colored plastic with the seat number "34," Puckett's uniform number. This dramatic game has been widely remembered as the high point in Puckett's career. The images of Puckett rounding the bases, arms raised in triumph, are always included in video highlights of Puckett's career, often accompanied by CBS Sports commentator Jack Buck's words, "And we'll see you tomorrow night!" In the years to come, and especially after Puckett's death, Game 6 came to symbolize his entire career as an excellent ballplayer who always came through for the Twins when they needed it the most. The next night, Puckett was intentionally walked twice and the Twins won 1-0 in 10 innings for their second World Series title in Minnesota.
The Twins contended for one more season and then began to slip, but Puckett refused to follow suit. In 1994, Puckett, now playing in right field, won his first league RBI title by driving in 112 runs in just 108 games, and he was having another brilliant season in 1995 before having his jaw broken by a Dennis Martínez fastball on September 28.
On March 28, 1996, after hitting for a .360 average in the Grapefruit League (spring training), he woke up without vision in his right eye. He was diagnosed with glaucoma, and several surgeries over the next few months could not restore vision in the eye; Puckett never played professional baseball again. On July 12, Puckett announced his retirement from baseball at age 35. His lifetime batting average of .318 was the highest of any right-handed batter since Joe DiMaggio retired in 1951. Puckett moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, in the winter of 2003. Until his death, the Twins tried to get Puckett to come back into the organization in a coaching capacity.
Awards and accolades Edit
Puckett appeared in 10 straight All-Star Games and was named the MVP of the 1993 All-Star Game in Baltimore. The Twins retired his number 34 in 1997. In 2001 he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, becoming the sixth player ever to be inducted before reaching the age of 41 (and the first to be born in the 1960s). In 1999, he ranked Number 86 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, and was nominated as a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. He also was a six time Golden Glove winner.
Puckett had been admired throughout his career and for some years after. His unquestionable baseball prowess, outgoing personality, charity work, community involvement, healthy image, good rapport with the media, and nice-guy attitude earned him the respect and admiration of fans across the country. In 1993, he received the Branch Rickey Award for his community service work.
Puckett became the subject of controversy in the years before his death. He was arrested and charged with groping a woman in a restroom at Redstone American Grill in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, on September 5, 2002. He was tried and acquitted.
In the March 17 2003 edition of Sports Illustrated, columnist Frank Deford wrote an article entitled "The Rise and Fall of Kirby Puckett", that documented Puckett's alleged indiscretions and attempted to contrast his private image with the much-revered public image he maintained prior to his arrest. A companion of many years to Puckett commented once that when Puckett could not play baseball anymore, "He started to become full of himself and very abusive." His weight ballooned to over 300 pounds and he was alleged to have begun to perform lewd acts in public, such as urinating in the parking lot of a shopping center in plain view of other people.
Template:Wikinews On the morning of March 5, 2006, Kirby Puckett suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona. He underwent emergency surgery that day to relieve pressure on his brain; the surgery failed, and his former teammates and coaches were notified the following morning. Many, including 1991 teammates Shane Mack and Kent Hrbek, flew to Phoenix to be at his bedside during his final hours along with Kirby's ex-wife Tonya Puckett and two kids Kirby Jr. and Catherine. His autopsy report, released after the end of the 2006 season, revealed the cause of his stroke was hypertension due to his post-career weight gain.
He died on March 6 in Phoenix of complications from the stroke shortly after being disconnected from life support, just 8 days away from his 46th birthday. The official cause of death was recorded as "cerebral hemorrhage due to hypertension." Puckett died at the second-youngest age (behind Lou Gehrig) of any Hall of Famer inducted while living, and the youngest to die after being inducted in the modern era of the five-season waiting period. Puckett is survived by his children, son Kirby Jr. and daughter Catherine. At the time of his death he was engaged to marry Jodi Olson, with an expected wedding date of June 24.
A private memorial service was held in Twin Cities suburb of Wayzata on the afternoon of March 12 (declared "Kirby Puckett Day" in Minneapolis), followed by a public ceremony held at the Metrodome attended by family, friends, ballplayers past and present, and approximately 15,000 fans (an anticipated capacity crowd dwindled through the day due to an incoming blizzard that night). Speakers at the latter service included Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew, Cal Ripken and Dave Winfield, and a multitude of former teammates and coaches.
|“||I was told I would never make it because I'm too short. Well, I'm still too short, but I've got 10 All-Star Games, two World Series championships, and I'm a very happy and contented guy. It doesn't matter what your height is, it's what's in your heart. — at his 1996 retirement press conference.||”|
|“||Don't take anything for granted, because tomorrow is not promised to any of us.||”|
|“||Kirby Puckett's going to be all right. Don't worry about me. I'll show up, and I'll have a smile on my face. The only thing I won't have is this uniform on. But you guys can have the memories of what I did when I did have it on.||”|
|“||I told Chili Davis, maybe I should bunt to get on base. He said "Bunt?! Bunt my you know what! Get a good hanging change up and hit it out let's go home!" I said "O.K., that's exactly what I'll do. — Describing his walkoff home run in the 1991 World Series||”|
- ↑  During his career, Puckett had been listed as being born in 1961; however, research by the Baseball Hall of Fame in the 2000s discovered he was born a year earlier. Many baseball resources still list the incorrect birth year. Local media on the day of his death carried the correction, listing Puckett's lifespan as 1960-2006.
- ↑ Official Site of The Minnesota Twins: History: Retired Numbers: Kirby Puckett
- ↑ The Five Most Important Figures in Minnesota Sports History Accessed 06/27/06
- ↑ ESPN: WORLD SERIES 100th ANNIVERSARY
- ↑ Branch Rickey Award on Baseball Almanac Accessed 06/26/06
- ↑ http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/2003/04/03_stawickie_puckett/ Accessed 08/14/08
- ↑ Baseball great Kirby Puckett dies Accessed 06/26/06
- List of top 500 Major League Baseball home run hitters
- DHL Hometown Heroes
- List of Major League Baseball Hit Records
- List of major league players with 2,000 hits
- List of Major League Baseball players with 400 doubles
- List of Major League Baseball players with 1000 runs
- List of Major League Baseball players with 1000 RBI
- List of Major League Baseball RBI champions
- List of Major League Baseball batting champions
- Hitting for the cycle
- Major League Baseball titles leaders
- A children's picture-book autobiography, Be the Best You Can Be (ISBN 0-931674-20-4), published by Waldman House Press in 1993;
- An autobiography, I Love This Game: My Life and Baseball (ISBN 0-06-017710-1), published by HarperCollins in 1993; and
- A book of baseball games and drills, Kirby Puckett's Baseball Games (ISBN 0-7611-0155-1), published by Workman Publishing Company in 1996
- baseballhalloffame.org – Hall of Fame biography page
- Baseball-Reference.com - Major league career statistics
- The Sporting News: Baseball's 100 Greatest Players (#86)
- Official Major League Baseball tribute site
- Yesterday's News - Puckett's first day in the majors
- Sports Illustrated: "The other Kirby" - March 2003 article on Puckett's personal problems
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