Tuesday, March 07, 2006

the last Minnesota hero

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.


the dharma bum said...

deb - so well said. I too wanted to post something about Kirby, even though it isn't exactly in the character of my blog either... anyway, you said everything i could have said, and said it better than i probably would have, so i'll just say thank you.

i was seven and 11 years old when the twins -- led by kirby -- won those two world series. i think those are two of the best ages in any boy's life, and i count myself as pretty lucky that i had a hero like kirby (and all the other guys) to cheer on in those days.

Rexroth's Daughter said...

I'm not a baseball fan, so I had never heard of Kirby Puckett, but you make me wish I had. This is a very beautiful tribute, Deb. He sounds like quite a person.

You do remind me of the early days when my dad listened to baseball on the radio in the car, when we were driving to the beach in the summer. Oh those announcers were always so over-the-top enthusiastic. When I think of baseball, I always picture a black and white TV, with the antenna twisted into some strange contortion, and my dad trying to pick up some game that was way out of our reception range.

Deb said...

dharma bum- thanks! I looked back and thought it wasn't as clearly written as it could have been, and I even felt kind of weird about having the picture of the baseball card up, like it didn't belong here.

Rexroth's Daughter- He was the biggest baseball star ever here in Minnesota, yet he had such a warm, down to earth personality that made him loved by all. He grew up in the projects on the south side of Chicago, so his life was an amazing success story.

I hardly ever watch baseball anymore, you have to have cable TV, but they still broadcast them on radio and it is quite a nostalgic trip to listen to a game! Takes me back to the little transistor radio my parents had in the kitchen.

katie said...

Aw Deb, I got sad all over again when I read your post about Kirby. I think you're right about the loss of innocence in our state, in our time. Reminds me of when Wellstone died. I was trying to be optimistic, to tell everyone that it was our turn to step up now and that hundreds would fill his shoes. Well, that was impossible. So it will be with Kirby Puckett, impossible that there will ever be one just like him. That's the beauty of human life, I guess.

Gwyn said...

What a beautiful tribute. I have been trying to write one for my storytelling blog, and it's been tough, because he was my older son's hero, and some parts of my older son's psyche seemed to have died when Kirby's own life took those nasty turns.

Far too young, and I agree with the images lost in our culture along with him. He started with the Twins and ended with them, never hopping from team to team. THAT was baseball.