Twins remember Puckett as exemplary teammate

Updated: March 12, 2006, 10:47 PM ET
Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- Kirby Puckett was known for his eagerness, enthusiasm and exceptional ability to play baseball, as well as a perpetual smile and a passion for other people.

Where he might have made his biggest mark in the game was with his effort.

Tonya Puckett
AP Photo/Jim MoneAmong the thousands who gathered to pay tribute to Kirby Puckett were his two childen Kirby, Jr. (left) and Catherine (right). They were consoled by their mother, Tonya, Puckett's former wife.
As Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire reminded the crowd gathered at the Metrodome for Sunday night's two-hour remembrance of Puckett, the Hall of Famer wasn't one to cut corners -- never neglecting where he came from and always appreciating his success.

"As long as I'm running this baseball team, we will play this game with respect," said Gardenhire, who coached third base for Minnesota during the last half of Puckett's 12-year career.

"We will run every ball out, and we will give you a show every time we come out," Gardenhire added. "Because that's what Kirby would have wanted us to do."

About 15,000 fans joined Puckett's family, friends and dozens of Twins players, coaches and personnel, both current and former, to celebrate what Puckett meant to them.

"Make sure you smile and laugh tonight because that's what Kirby would want, and that's why we loved him," said Twins radio announcer John Gordon, the master of ceremonies, in his introductory remarks.

Gardenhire and a handful of players, including Torii Hunter, Brad Radke and Joe Mauer, skipped a day of spring training to attend. Kent Hrbek, Harmon Killebrew and Dave Winfield were among the former players who took seats around the infield as a local gospel choir began the event by signing the old hymn "I'll Fly Away." Fans, many toting Homer Hankies and Puckett memorabilia, clapped rhythmically from the seats.

A private memorial service was held earlier in the suburb of Wayzata for Puckett's family and friends before gates opened at the place where Puckett roamed center field on two World Series winners, in 1987 and 1991. Fans lined up outside the stadium several hours before the public service began.

Kevin Grubb, of Blaine, brought his 7-year-old daughter, Paige, who of course never saw Puckett play.

"I wanted her to see what it was like," Grubb said. "See the people and the fans, just to let her know how important he was to the community."

Clearly, Puckett -- who died Monday at age 45 after suffering a stroke in his Scottsdale home -- meant a lot.

Hrbek, the hometown boy who played first base on both of Minnesota's championship teams and batted right behind Puckett, was cheered louder than any of the speakers.

"I'm not going to remember the hits and the hustle and the catches that Kirby made," Hrbek said. "I'm going to remember the smile. I'm going to remember the laughter. I'm going to remember the clubhouse pranks and just having a good ol' time with Puck."

As Puckett's popularity grew, Minnesotans and Twins fans began to name not only their children, but family pets, Kirby. This was not lost on Hrbek.

"And if somebody else had a cow or a horse, they always named it Herbie," he said. "I was always second fiddle with Puck, but I loved every minute of it."

People who knew Puckett were always quick to mention his ability to make them laugh, and the ceremony wouldn't have been complete with a chance for chuckles.

Puckett's memorable cameo as a Top Ten list reader on the "Late Show with David Letterman," was shown. He offered Creepy Pockets, Turkey Bucket, Buddy Hackett and Englepuck Kirbydink among the top 10 ways to mispronounce his name.

It was a time for those truly close to Puckett to wrap up their day with a sharing of all those special memories, and a way for his former teammates and peers to toast his impact on their careers.

Many of the fans who showed up, of course, never got closer to him than the TV -- or that favorite seat in center field where they could sit close and watch him work every half-inning.

But this was more than simply the mourning of a lost baseball player, who was only able to become so widely adored because of the high profile sports have in society. He was a man who, once his playing days were done, revealed a darker side -- problems with women and weight.

No, it wasn't about that. For friends, family and fans, it was a time for reflection on his warmth, his sincerity, his awareness and his caring nature.

"You could be in the worst mood ever and all you had to do was hear Kirby laugh, or see his smile, and he could bring you back. Even when you were mad at an umpire," said Cal Ripken, who played against Puckett's Twins teams throughout the 1980s and 1990s with the Baltimore Orioles.

"He's a real person. He was genuine. He was considerate. He was everything a friend should be," Ripken said, asking everyone to close their eyes for a moment and consider Puckett's impact on his or her life.

"I guarantee you you'll feel better," Ripken said.

A recording of late public address announcer Bob Casey's famous introduction -- "Kir-beeeee Puck-ett!" -- was played over the speakers as the conclusion arrived. Then came Jack Buck's famous closing call in Game 6 of the '91 Series that Puckett ended with an 11th-inning home run.

That was followed by a clip from his Hall of Fame induction speech, in 2001.

"Can you all just do me one favor?" Puckett told the audience that summer day. "Don't take life for granted, because tomorrow isn't promised to any one of us."


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press