When former New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton told baseball fans everywhere that their beloved hero, Mickey Mantle, was a drinking, partying womanizer who loved to look up the skirts of the girls in the stands, many fans were outraged. Bouton published his daily thoughts of the 1969 season in the book Ball Four. Fans and players alike believed, what happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse.
I think many sports fans don’t want a man, they want a hero. After a hall of fame career, I saw my childhood hero, Kirby Puckett, go from a legend to a man.
Being a baseball fan born in Minnesota in 1978 meant I was lucky enough to watch Kirby Puckett’s entire career. The greatest sports star in the history of Minnesota began his career with the Minnesota Twins in 1984 and ended in the middle of the 1996 season. I was six when he started and 18 when it was all over. Sadly, I was 27 when he died.
I’m 32 years old and I know the people I look up to are human, just like me. The only difference is they can hit or pitch a baseball far better than me or they can play a musical instrument and write a song to go with it. They can do things I can’t do, but they make the same mistakes I make every day.
After being one of the youngest players in the history of baseball to reach 2,000 hits, Puckett’s career ended quickly and unexpectedly. Days before the 1996 season began, the Twins’ centerfielder noticed a black dot before his vision in his right eye. After the Twins nation waited months to see if their greatest player would ever return, Puckett finally held a news conference in early July to announce his retirement after the doctors diagnosed him with glaucoma. I could only reminisce of his career, especially Puckett’s most famous game of all, the sixth game of the 1991 World Series.
After telling a solemn clubhouse of players, who were down three games to two in a best-of-seven series, they could jump on his back because he was going to carry them that night, Puckett went to knock in three runs. Puckett capped off the night with a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 11th inning to give the Twins the victory as well as the unforgettable seventh game showdown the next night. If it wasn’t for Puckett, the Braves would have won the 1991 World Series in six games.
As a kid I had the future hall of famer’s picture all over my walls. I had posters, magazine and newspaper cutouts, and even statistics from the sports section on my bulletin board. I, and the thousands of other kids at the stadium, couldn’t help but smile and get excited when Twins public address announcer Bob Casey would call out, “Now batting, number thirty-four, the centerfielder Kirbeeeeeeeeeeeeee, Puckett!” Baseball fans couldn’t help but like his 5-foot, eight inch, 210-pound frame. He didn’t look like a baseball player, but there weren’t many who played better than him. He never seemed to stop smiling, laughing or joking with teammates and fans. His optimistic views on the game combined with his character were the perfect fit for Minnesota Twins fans, including myself.
Sometimes I wish I never knew about the real Kirby Puckett – the man who was charged with groping a women in a bar restroom in 2002. He divorced from his wife Tanya after she told the courts he repeatedly cheated on her. Puckett wasn’t the perfect guy his unending smile and laugh on the field showed. He wasn’t the unbeatable force I saw him as while I was trying to top 100 pounds on the scale. Kirby Puckett was a man just like me and he made mistakes.
The thought that Kirby Puckett was a real man never crossed my mind as a kid. He was just the superstar I saw on TV and at the stadium. Age helped me discover that the people on TV are far from perfect, but still I never saw this in Puckett. He could do no wrong. When allegations came out about what he’d done to a woman in a restroom, I couldn’t disagree with them. It was then I realized I had no idea who Kirby Puckett was. I get upset when I saw Pete Rose fans protesting in his behalf that he didn’t bet money on baseball like the commissioner was alleging. Those fans are defending a hero, a myth, but not a man. I’m willing to bet all of those fans have never talked to Pete Rose for more than five minutes. They don’t know what kind of man he is.
I can remember basketball star Kobe Bryant telling the press, “C’mon, you guys know me,” when allegations came out that he raped a woman in a Colorado hotel room years ago. No, Kobe, we don’t know you. We know you can score 70 points a game, but we don’t know you personally.
As for Kirby, he wasn’t perfect and I’m okay with it. I cherish his memory through his baseball career. I’m a fan, not a friend. I can overlook his personal life because I wasn’t a part of it. The good memories won’t go away.
When the six-time gold glove winner died of a stroke in 2006, I couldn’t help but wonder how his life would have gone if he could have left the game on his own terms. Many close friends said Puckett was never the same once he left the ball field for good.
It’s a sad ending to a fantastic story. I can compare Puckett’s career to the film Moulin Rouge. In the film, the audience learns very early that Satine, Nicole Kidman’s character, dies. After the final scene in which the main characters fall in love and the bad guys are eliminated from the story, Satine dies of an unknown ailment behind the curtain of the theater. I like the ending, but I’m not always in the mood to watch it … so I don’t. Most of the time I simply stop the DVD after the characters fall in love and before she dies.
The same goes to my childhood hero. I won’t forget how his life ended, but I’m not going to dwell on it. I’m going to remember when he went 10-for-11 against the Brewers in 1987. I’m going to remember his home run to win game six and TV announcer Jack Buck screaming over the Metrodome crowd as the ball left the field, “To deep left center for Mitchell … (ball goes over fence) and we’ll see ya tomorrow night!” I’ll remember Kirby signing his picture in my 1987 Twins yearbook before a game that season. He didn’t stop for long since there were dozens of other kids trying to get the same thing. But my childhood hero stood before me for a brief moment and did something for me.
When the man who signed my 1987 yearbook died, I knew I’d never look at another person the way I looked at Kirby Puckett with my Twins hat, t-shirt and uneducated 10-year old face. He was a hero, a legend and a myth. I wish I could still see him as I once did because sometimes ignorance is bliss. Luckily, I’m intelligent enough to focus on the positives and realize no one is perfect, even our heroes.