How do you describe Puck? Class, all class

Updated: August 5, 2001, 8:23 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Each Hall of Fame plaque includes a few engraved sentences briefly describing the player's career. But once you get past the mandatory phrases -- Retired with the highest batting average for a right-handed hitter since Joe DiMaggio. ... Played in 10 consecutive All-Star games. ... Led Twins to their first two world championships -- how could there possibly be enough room to adequately describe what Kirby Puckett meant to baseball?

How can you adequately describe what Puck meant to his teammates? The way he needled them, the way he gave everyone a nickname, the way he relaxed them, the way he made them all better (Shane Mack owed his career to Puck's guidance). The way he carried them in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series after they lost the previous three games and fled Atlanta with the Tomahawk Chop echoing in their ears.

Kirby Puckett
Kirby Puckett led the Twins to the 1987 Series title.

How Puck went to the clubhouse before Game 6 and announced, "Jump on, I'm driving this bus." Then gave one of the great performances in World Series history by singling, tripling, stealing a base, scoring two runs, driving in three, robbing Ron Gant of extra bases with a brilliant catch and winning the game with a home run in the bottom of the 11th.

How can you describe what Puck meant to his opponents? How there was no more respected or liked player among his peers. How at each All-Star Game the players from both teams would always seek him out for a chat and an autograph. How they still did it six years after his retirement at this year's All-Star Game. How David Justice insulted the Atlanta fans before Game 6 of the 1995 World Series and not knowing whom else to ask, called Puck for advice. How following Puck's stern lecture, Justice responded with a World Series-winning home run.

How can you describe what Puck meant to Minnesota? How the applause and squeals of delight when his name was announced were so loud it was as if the Beatles were digging in at home plate. How a delegate at the 1992 Democratic convention announced Minnesota as "the proud state of Kirby Puckett." How McDonald's named a cheeseburger after him but to avoid crowds, Puck had to crouch in the backseat of the car while his wife went through the drive-thru to order it. How the Twins biggest crowds were for special Puckett promotions years after he had retired.

How can you describe Puck's sense of humor, his charm and infectious personality? How he made everyone feel a little happier just by his presence in a clubhouse. How he never would publicly criticize anyone, never wanting to make anyone feel bad.

How on one oppressively hot day in Arlington's stiflingly old oven of a stadium he told a St. Paul reporter, "I hate his place," only to think better of it and chase down the reporter. "Don't write that I hate this place" he said. "Write, 'I don't like this place.' "

How do you describe what Puck overcame to reach Cooperstown's doors? How he grew up in Chicago's notorious Robert Taylor Homes, the crime-ridden projects across the freeway from Comiskey Park. How on his way to play baseball one day, Puck noticed two men arguing. How one drew a knife and plunged it into the other man's heart. How no ambulance came, Puck said, because ambulances were afraid to come there.

"I didn't want to be a product of my environment," Puck said. "I told guys, 'I could sit out here with you and drink wine, but I want to do something else with my life first.' "

Puck will have 10 minutes for his acceptance speech, and though no one can squeeze more words into 10 minutes than he can, even that will be grossly inadequate.

How do you describe the sadness that Puck's playing career ended with him lying on the ground bleeding after he had been hit by a pitch in the cheek? How a case of glaucoma the following spring left him blind in one eye and prematurely ended his career. How he is only 40 years old and should still be playing baseball instead of receiving its highest honor this weekend. And how he isn't bitter in the slightest about the way it ended.

"I'm 20-15 in the other eye," Puck said. "I could probably hit .280 or .285, but if it's not .300, I don't want it. You know Puck. If it doesn't have a '3' in front of it, Puck doesn't want anything to do with it."

How can you fit all that on such a little plaque? Why, the Hall will be lucky to find room for his entire smile. Puck will have 10 minutes for his acceptance speech, and though no one can squeeze more words into 10 minutes than he can, even that will be grossly inadequate.

"Part of it will be written and part of it will be spoken from the heart," Puck said of his speech. "You know me, I usually just talk from the top of my head. But I'm afraid I would forget somebody that way. And I only have 10 minutes. Ten minutes isn't much time and I have a lot of people to thank and give credit."

Unfortunately, there are a handful of people who question Puck's Hall of Fame credentials. Who say that his shortened career left him a borderline candidate at best. Who say that his personality and popularity unjustly swayed voters. That there are more deserving candidates still shut out of the Hall.

So how do you describe to them everything they missed by not seeing Puck play everyday with such joy it lit up an entire sport?

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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