The Minnesota twins are teeing off on the Seattle Mariners in the HumpDome. Doubles, home runs and RBIs are coming cheap. Almost every Twin in the lineup gets a hit tonight—except the cubelike centerfielder wearing the size 8½ shoes. The rotund little guy is Kirby Puckett, and this isn't normal. Puckett hits. He has led the league in hits for much of this season. But tonight he can't get started.
The Twins win 13-5, as Puckett goes 0 for 3. Puckett rarely goes 0 for anything, but in the clubhouse after the game there's no sulking in the corner. Instead, there's Puckett wearing his enormous grin and visiting the locker of every one of his teammates, pitchers and nonstarters included, shaking every hand in sight and saying, "Way to go!" And the weird thing is, he means it.
"We won, we're having fun," he says. "I'm having fun." Indeed, the Twins have enjoyed surprising success this season, hovering at or near the top of the American League West largely because of the exuberant Puckett.
"He's got this charisma," says teammate Al Newman. "He's always smiling. I've never heard him booed. When I first came here I said, 'How can this guy throw? How can he hit?' He's the eighth wonder of the world."
June 14, 1987
After Puckett completes his congratulatory tour of the clubhouse, a Minneapolis reporter tells him that the 5'8" Newman has claimed to be taller than Puckett, who's also listed at 5'8". Confront most major league batting stars with a comment like that after a hitless night and you might find yourself wearing Louisville Slugger dentures. "Al had two hits tonight," says Puckett, breaking into the big grin. "I guess he is taller."
Meanwhile, over in the opponents' locker room, Mariners manager Dick Williams speaks for many when he says, "I just love watching Puckett play. You can just sense how much he enjoys the game. It oozes from him. Baseball needs a lot more Kirby Pucketts."
In a doubleheader against Detroit last week, Puckett, 26, staged a more typical assault on the stat sheet with two RBIs, two runs scored, a stolen base—and six hits. "It's like what Wade Boggs told me," says Puckett, " 'One a day keeps the doctor away.' And he didn't mean apples."
He didn't mean taters, either, but for good measure Puckett has 10 of those. Inch for inch, he's the strongest man in the game, able to do bench-press repetitions with 365-pound weights. Last season, his third in the majors, Puckett hit 31 homers, some of them stunners. One at Yankee Stadium bounced off the Babe Ruth monument in left center. "I've hit a few home runs, but never one that far," marveled 6'4", 216-pound teammate Tom Brunansky. And there was a blast off Jack Morris in Detroit that almost drilled a hole in the outfield stands. "If the wind hadn't been blowing in, I swear that ball would have been over the roof," says Twins manager Tom Kelly. During a batting practice in spring training this year, Puckett was bombing balls over the fence, causing so much damage to the cars parked on the other side that an Orlando police sergeant threatened to have him arrested.
Puckett hits the ball shockingly hard to all fields, so hard that infielders don't dare blink while he's at the plate. In the season's first series against Seattle, Puckett hit a shot that shattered the cheekbone of Mariners pitcher Steve Shields. Puckett yelled "Watch out!" to Shields, but the unfortunate pitcher had no chance of dodging the bullet.
The strongest little man in baseball may also be the sweetest. Everybody loves Kirby Puckett. His teammates love him. The Minnesota fans love him. The Twins front office loves him; the promotions people are even talking about marketing a Kirby Bear. It would likely be a hot item because kids in particular are drawn to Puckett. He is their smiling buddy, a real-life Smurf. "Something about the guy just makes you feel good," says Kelly.
"I love the game," Puckett says, trying to explain his enthusiasm. "This is fun for me. It was fun when I was a kid. It is now. I didn't play baseball so I could get out of the ghetto. I played because I enjoyed baseball." He gazes out at the blues and greens and smiles as if it's all so obvious. "And now look, I'm in the big leagues!"
In a sense, Puckett is from the big leagues. The Robert Taylor Homes on Chicago's South Side are the World Series champions of inner-city, abandon-hope-all-ye-who-enter-here public housing projects. Puckett spent the first 12 years of his life in the 15-block row of look-alike buildings, in a 14th-floor apartment. The elevator seldom worked. The Homes are a breeding ground for crime and drug addiction; Newsweek recently described them as the "place where hope died."
Comiskey Park stands just four blocks away from the northern end of the Homes, but cut off by the 14-lane Dan Ryan Expressway, it might as well be in Montana for all the connection it has with the projects. The youngest of nine children, Kirby played ball and ignored the despair around him. "It wasn't really important, the gangs and all that stuff," he insists. "I was a kid enjoying myself. I'd come home from school, do my homework, then look for kids to play ball with. If nobody'd play, I'd just throw strikes against the wall or hit rolled-up socks in my room. I loved baseball so much I was always thinking of ways I could keep playing."
"Sometimes he'd play in the back where they pick up the garbage," says his mother, Catherine. "And sometimes older boys would hit his ball across the expressway, and he would come upstairs crying. It was a tough area, but you don't have to be like everybody else. People survived, is what I mean. We survived."
At Calumet High, Kirby starred as a third baseman. But he never felt right for the position. "At third you have to hit homers, and I didn't," he says. Puckett was a speedster who hit singles to the opposite field. So he took stock one day and made a major decision.
"It was no secret I wasn't going to be tall," he says. "So I figured if I can't be tall, I'll be strong. A bodybuilder, like Arnold Schwarzenegger."
He pumped iron throughout high school, but it wasn't enough. He received no baseball offers as a senior, and after graduation he went to work at a Ford plant. The following summer, Bradley University coach Dewey Kalmer spotted Puckett at a Kansas City Royals free-agent tryout and offered him a scholarship. By now Puckett was a rock-hard 175 pounds but, as Kalmer recalls, "not a real good player, a short-armed third baseman who swung at everything." He was fast, however, and Kalmer moved him to centerfield, where Puckett made the all-Missouri Valley Conference team.
Puckett left Bradley after his first year when his father, a postal worker, died. To be nearer his mother, he enrolled at Triton Community College in River Grove, Ill. At Triton he broke loose. In his one season there, 1982, he hit .472 with 42 stolen bases. He had 16 home runs for the year, and when opponents routinely tested the little fella's arm, he would routinely gun them down. The Twins drafted Puckett in the first round of the January '82 draft, but in the minors his weight-room power vanished. In more than two seasons of minor league ball he hit just 13 home runs. The only significant addition to his musculature was a KIRBY tattoo on his left bicep. "I got that at Lou's Tattoos in Clearwater. Eight bucks," he says. "I just got kinda bored."
When Puckett joined the Twins in May 1984, the power drought continued; he did not hit a home run the entire season. In '85, he hit just four homers, while leading the league with 691 at bats. As a major leaguer he could be counted on to hit a tater every 312 times he came to the plate, a decidedly wimpish ratio.
But last year Puckett exploded. In his first 24 games he had 11 home runs; for the season he had 31, or one every 22 times at bat. He also batted .328, led the Twins in stolen bases (20), won his first Gold Glove (AL managers had already voted Puckett and Boston's Dwight Evans the two best outfield arms in the league) and finished sixth in the league MVP voting. He was second in the league in runs scored (119), hits (223) and total bases (365), and led all American Leaguers in percentage of their team's runs produced (14.8%).
In spring training last year, Twins batting coach Tony Oliva, a three-time AL batting champion, told Puckett that even with his success as an opposite-field singles hitter (.296 and .288 average in his first two seasons), he could do better if he learned how to jerk the tight pitches and use the whole field. Oliva moved Puckett closer to the plate and got him to turn hard on balls inside while still keeping his compact, precise stroke on pitches away.
"If he hadn't had all those home runs early, he might have gone back to the old way," says Oliva. "Now it's easy. He knows he can pull the ball."
Moreover, maturity and weight training had finally turned Puckett the runt into Puckett the pit bull. Though listed at 185 pounds, he played last season at a substantial 205. "You look at him," said 1986 Twins manager Ray Miller, "and you think he's a fat little kid. You touch him, and he's like concrete."
This season there may be a tad of lard amid the mortar. At the end of spring training Puckett tipped in at 218 pounds, though now he's below 210. "Sometimes I wish I hadn't lifted so much," he says with a sigh, rubbing his belly. "If I stop, I'll turn into a fat slob."
But the girth hasn't noticeably slowed him—he's second on the Twins in stolen bases with six—and it has enabled him to move up from a 31-ounce bat to a 33-ouncer and now even fiddle around with a grand 35-ounce, 35-inch club.
The added pounds and extra ounces may just mean more of a good thing. "What you've got now is the complete ballplayer," says Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda, who watches Puckett each spring. "Speed, defense, arm, power, average. Plus he's a great human being."
"Hi! Welcome to The Kirby Puckett Report" says the centerfielder for the sixth time this morning, smiling to the camera pointed at him in the Twins locker room. It's time for Puckett's weekly sports show, but teammates keep sabotaging his performance. "Cut," says the producer. "Let's try it again."
"What's this for, the Ebony/Jet channel?" yells catcher Tim Laudner, who is white. "Can I get on?"
"Cut," says the producer.
"You have to be black or a very good friend of mine to get on," says Puckett sweetly.
Laudner, a large, rugged man, bear hugs Puckett and plants a huge kiss on his cheek. "He never ceases to amaze me," says Laudner later. "He's from the projects, but he doesn't seem to carry his past environment around with him. I just have the utmost respect for him."
Last year Reggie Jackson blasted the Twins organization for being a bastion of whiteness and apparent intolerance. He noted that early in the season Puckett was the only black on the squad and charged that the club seemed committed to keeping its image as fair-skinned as possible.
"It didn't mean anything to my teammates or me," says Puckett now. "Nobody came up to me and said, 'Hey, Kirby, you're the only black on the team!' Reggie has his feelings, and I respect them. But I believe that a person's a person, not a color. My parents raised me to have no prejudices."
Every year since college Puckett has shaved his head at the start of the season. "The guys rub my head and relax," he says. "I don't care what people think. Somebody's got to be the good luck charm. I love my teammates."
Puckett also loves his adopted home of Minneapolis. He was married there last November, and he and his wife, Tonya, built a house in suburban Brooklyn Park. "There is no prejudice in Minneapolis at all," Puckett insists. "It's one of the best places for interracial things, the kind of place that you want your kids to grow up in. Even if I get traded I'll keep a house in Minneapolis."
Puckett is the last one to leave the locker room, and he carries with him one of his oversized bats. He likes to hold the wood. He likes the feeling of the skinny handle in his palms and all that heft at the other end. Tonight he'll put some music on his stereo and stand in his living room and swing the bat a few hundred times just for the sheer pleasure of it.
An elderly man approaches him in the parking lot and asks for directions to a building. Puckett patiently obliges. The man nods and shuffles off. Walking to his car, Puckett says, "I might be old someday and want directions. And I hope that I get treated nicely, too."
On the freeway home, Puckett allows, "Not many people don't like Kirby Puckett."
Who could? Puckett, who makes $365,000 per year, is woefully underpaid for a star who led his team in 11 offensive categories last season. "I don't really even think about it," he says. "When I'm done with baseball, I'll call a press conference, thank everyone and leave with dignity. Like a professional. I won't hang on for money."
Then that big grin returns and his eyes light up. "You know what I really love? Defense. I love it when a guy thinks he's hit a home run and I jump up over the fence at the Dome and take it away. What a thrill. I just love baseball. I have so much fun at it."
It still seems the best reason to play the game.