For 11 innings, Puckett's greatness took center stage

Originally Published: March 6, 2006
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

To appreciate the greatness of Kirby Puckett's 12-year career, all you had to see was 11 innings.

The other side of A.J. Pierzynski.

They came in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, perhaps the greatest World Series ever played. The Twins were behind in the series, 3-2, when Puckett almost single-handedly beat the Braves with one of the best one-game performances in postseason history. He hit the game-winning home run that sent the Twins to a 4-3 victory -- it was his fourth hit and third RBI -- and he made a fabulous leaping catch against the center-field fence in the third inning.

"This isn't the first time he's had that kind of game," Twins manager Tom Kelly said after the game.

He had many games like it, but very few players have ever had a game like that in the World Series or the postseason, especially in an elimination game. It was right there with the best of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, George Brett, Roberto Clemente, Brooks Robinson, Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson. It was the kind of unforgettable performance that elevates a player to legendary status. Puckett's career numbers were Hall of Fame material, but Game 6 of the '91 World Series went a long way in getting him into Cooperstown on the first ballot in 2001.

And the best part is, Puckett basically predicted it.

"I went to the clubhouse, and I gathered [everyone] up. I said, 'Everybody together, we're going to have a short meeting,'" Puckett said, retelling the story years later. "Everybody comes in, and I said, 'Guys, I just have one announcement to make: You guys should jump on my back tonight. I'm going to carry us.'"

Then he did.

"We were in a bad way; we needed someone to step forward in a major way," Twins teammate Gene Larkin said. "He told us to jump on his back. Not many guys can talk the talk and walk the walk, but Kirby always could. After he spoke to us, we just knew that Kirby was going to do something special. We've seen him do that many times. That time it was on the biggest stage."

Kirby Puckett
Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesKirby Puckett backed up his words before Game 6 and carried the Twins closer to the World Series title in 1991.
Teammate Kent Hrbek said: "Great catch, great home run, great player. I know if there were a line of players standing on a block and I had the first pick, I would pick Kirby Puckett. But I don't remember him for that game, I remember him for playing hard every night."

In the first inning of Game 6, Puckett tripled home a run, then scored. In the third inning, with one out and a runner at first, Atlanta's Ron Gant hit a fly ball to deep left-center field.

"I thought it was gone," Puckett said. But Puckett, who was 5-foot-8, scaled the Plexiglas fence in left-center and caught it -- making one of the greatest catches in World Series history.

"If he hadn't made that catch," Larkin said, "we might have lost the World Series in six games."

Puckett hit a sacrifice fly in the fifth to give the Twins a 3-2 lead, but the Braves tied it, setting up the dramatic 11th inning. The Braves brought in left-hander Charlie Leibrandt, a starting pitcher, to work in relief. Puckett hit a 2-1, hanging changeup over the wall in left-center to end the game.

As he rounded the bases, pumping his fist and screaming at the top of his lungs, the Metrodome was almost indescribably loud. The fans chanted "Kirby! Kirby!" He was mobbed at home plate.

"It was so loud in the Metrodome, it was like a plane taking off on the runway," Larkin said.

The Twins won Game 7, 1-0, in 10 innings behind a masterful performance by Jack Morris.

"After Game 6, Jack said something like, 'Now it's my turn to do my job; Kirby did his job,'" Larkin said.

It was one of the greatest Game 7s ever played, but it only happened because of what Puckett did in Game 6. It will forever be known simply as the Puckett Game, and no further explanation is needed. It was the night that a team's best player and leader played his best, and his best was as great as the World Series has ever seen.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.