Players, fans saddened by Puckett's death

Updated: March 7, 2006, 9:56 PM ET
Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- In the middle of a steadily growing memorial to Kirby Puckett, outside the Metrodome and right alongside a street named for the beloved Hall of Famer, one cardboard sign stood out.

"There IS crying in baseball," the message was written, in red ink, bannered over a couple old Puckett baseball cards taped to the corners.

All around the game, people who were close to the roly-poly outfielder who led the Minnesota Twins to two World Series titles -- and even those who only watched him on TV -- were saddened Tuesday by Puckett's death.

"This morning, when I got up and took a shower and watched the news, tears started coming out," said Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, one of many contemporaries who spoke about the man whose energy, enthusiasm and exceptional skills captivated baseball fans throughout a 12-year career cut short by glaucoma in 1996.

Puckett died at 45 in a Phoenix hospital Monday afternoon, a day after having a stroke in his home.

"This is a great loss for baseball," said former Baltimore Orioles great Cal Ripken, who with Puckett was one of the few stars of their generation who never switched teams. "Puck was one of my favorite people to compete against on the field and to be around off the field. I will always remember how Kirby played the game with joy and how he brought a smile to your face just by saying hello."

A memorial service was in the works. Funeral arrangements had not been finalized Tuesday afternoon.

"We'll take our time and go there, pay our respects and then come on back down to spring training," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said before Minnesota played the New York Yankees in Tampa, Fla.

March is for games that don't matter, mere tuneups for the regular season, but Puckett's teammates and opponents always remarked how he never loafed -- even in meaningless exhibitions.

"He was a tremendous ambassador for the team. I think Dave Winfield said the right thing: He was the only player in the history of baseball everybody loved," said Guillen, who jokingly used to call his son, Oney, "Little Puck" because he was a bit chubby.

Perhaps the most poignant marker of Puckett's impact on people was outside the Metrodome, thousands of miles from those sunny spring training sites, where dozens of fans shuffled around during the noon hour on a dreary, chilly day.

There were bouquets. There were orange Wheaties boxes, commemorating the Twins' championships. There were bobblehead dolls. There were caps. And plenty of personalized messages.

"I've been watching Kirby since I was young," said 25-year-old Tim Jarvis, who brought a flower pot to set on the sidewalk. "He's the kind of guy when your dad says, 'You want to learn how to hit a baseball, that's the guy to watch.'"

An Ohio native who came to St. Paul to attend school, Jarvis recalled Puckett as one of the reasons why he was excited to move -- even though his playing days were long gone.

"That's awesome. I get to go watch baseball in the house that Kirby played in," Jarvis said.

The Yankees' Randy Johnson recalled how Puckett helped his mother put her luggage in the overhead compartment once on a plane. Don Mattingly pointed out that Puckett was the one who gave him his nickname, "Donnie Baseball." Boston's David Ortiz wrote "Puckett 34 R.I.P" on his cap for the Dominican Republic's game against Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic.

Steve Finley, now with the San Francisco Giants, remembered when Puckett said hello to Ripken while the Orioles stretched before a 1989 game in Minneapolis -- and then started chatting with Finley, a rookie he had never before met.

"He had a way of making everyone feel important," Finley said.


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press