The Awakening (or How Kirby Puckett Learned How to Stop Worrying About Getting Jammed and Caused Havoc in the American League):
Scene I—The Metrodome, April 27. Puckett, who averaged .292 his first two years with the Minnesota Twins but hit only four homers in 1,248 at bats, has homered in the first two games of a three-game series with the Angels. Late in Game 3, Angels manager Gene Mauch catches the eye of his nephew, infielder Roy Smalley, in the Minnesota dugout. Mauch stands with cap over heart as Puckett, 3 for 3 for the day so far, comes to bat. As he steps to the plate, Mauch briefly puts his other hand over his eyes. Puckett is held to an infield single. Mauch shrugs—in relief.
Scene II—Yankee Stadium, last Wednesday night. Puckett, theretofore known mostly for his bowling-ball body—5'8", 200 pounds—had hit fly balls into Death Valley (centerfield) his first three at bats the night before. After that game, Twins manager Ray Miller had said, "This park's too big for you, Kirby." So on Wednesday Puckett sends a Joe Niekro fastball 440 feet, right over Death Valley. Puckett announces on his return to the dugout, "There's your too big, Skip."
Scene III—Detroit, last Friday night, top of the first. Leadoff hitter Puckett, the American League player of the month for April, approaches home plate. Tiger catcher Lance Parrish asks, "What are you hitting with?" Puckett lets Parrish check out his S-226 bat, then launches Jack Morris's first pitch into an 18-mph breeze, reaching the seats in left center.
May 11, 1986
Scene IV—Detroit, Saturday night. Puckett hits Walt Terrell's first pitch for home run No. 11 on the season, his 10th in the last 14 games, his sixth in the last seven. What's it all about, Kirby? "Two, three a month, that's what I thought I'd hit this year. This is like a dream."
And what dreamy numbers. Puckett's 16-game hitting streak, the longest in the majors this year, ended Sunday, but he was batting .376, after going 19 for his last 38. He led the majors in homers, runs (27), hits (41), extra-base hits (19) and slugging (.761). "And last year you couldn't pay me to pull the ball," he says. "I just couldn't."
But after piling up 199 hits, 74 RBIs (and all four of those homers) in '85, Puckett was willing to spend this spring working with batting coach Tony Oliva on pulling. He moved closer to the plate and worked on keeping his weight back, a la Charley Lau and, for that matter, Oliva. He learned to trust in his strength and quick hands, and not to fret about getting jammed. Having a compact swing was a bonus. Now, when the pitch is fat enough, he waits and turns on it. "Before, I was too anxious," he says. "I didn't want them to throw the ball by me. So I lunged and hit a lot of weak grounders."
Scene V—A flashback. Puckett is sitting in his Detroit hotel room Saturday, watching himself on the Game of the Week pregame show on which Reggie Jackson also appeared. Puckett remembers his first meeting with Jackson, the day of his major league debut (May 8, 1984, Anaheim. He went 4 for 5). Reggie strolls over before the game. "You look pretty strong. You hit the long ball?"
"No, I don't, Mr. Jackson."
"You don't hit the long ball? You look like you should."
"No, I'm just a base-hit hitter, Mr. Jackson."
"Then what am I doing here?" Reggie replies, in mock contempt. "Why am I talking to this Punch and Judy, hitter?"