This will probably seem very out of character for me. After all, I don't normally write laments about sports heroes. But today when I heard the news that Kirby Puckett had died at the young age of 45, I could not help but be sad. I think he was one of the best, and one of the last of the golden age of baseball.
Kirby Puckett was part of the Minnesota Twins team that rose above all odds to win the World Series in 1987, and again in 1991. Kirby's skill at center field, and his ability to hit home runs when it mattered the most, made him the essential part of those victories. I still remember watching him; my heart leapt with joy when I saw him make an impossible homerun-stealing leap and catch. And he always seemed to do it with such joy.
I remember failing an Organic Chemistry test in my junior year of college the day after the Twins won the World Series. And I have no regrets; who could study at a time like that?
I noticed how he always made the sign of the cross whenever he stepped up to bat. I'm no fundamentalist, but I think he truly believed that his abilities at baseball came from a truly higher power, and that sign was an act of submission to that power.
My father in law was there at the Metrodome to watch Kirby's last at bat, which was a tragic, ignominious ordeal. Puckett was hit squarely in the face with a high speed pitch. The next spring, he woke up one day unable to see out of one eye. The two events were unrelated; he was diagnosed with glaucoma, and his baseball career was over, just like that.
I truly think part of his soul died when he was no longer able to play the game he loved. He went through some troubled times in his personal life, which were unfortunately amplified by the media. I think we all realized at that point, that he was just a human like all of us. A hero, no doubt, but very human.
What makes me really sad is that I think that with Puckett's passing, we have seen the end of an era. Not just in baseball, but in a time of innocence here in Minnesota, when everyone had parents or grandparents on the farm, when The Cities were still unsprawling, when everyone listened to the Twins games on WCCO radio and cheered with every home run, when there actually were towns like Lake Wobegon, and everyone had connections to them. Major league baseball still meant something besides enormous salaries, and the players still had a love for the game. I fear all of that has been lost somehow, that this world has grown a little too big and commercialized for heroes like Kirby Puckett to exist today.
Kirby, have fun on the Field of Dreams. I know you're there.