Does the Puck Stop Here?

Kirby Puckett's contract tug-of-war with Minnesota management has Twins fans in a tizzy
June 21, 1992

He is called puck—not because his surname is Puckett but because he is hewn from a slab of vulcanized rubber. Minnesota Twins fans tend to stand whenever they're in the presence of Puck. This is how it works: They stand, he delivers. In fact, he is as hot as he is squat. Puck, all 5'8" of him, recently hit two grand slams in six days in the midst of a seven-game, .531 batting binge. Oh, and Puck is a free agent at the end of this season. If this is Puck's final summer in Minnesota, then Minnesotans are making this the Summer of Love.

"The fans here have always been good to me," Twins centerfielder Kirby Puckett was saying last Friday night at the Metrodome. "But for everything I do now, they give me a standing ovation. I've never seen anything like this. Everything I do, they give a standing ovation. How could I feel anything but overwhelmed?"

Puckett isn't the only megastar this season who is tasting the sweet-and-sour emotions of a possible last hurrah. This may also prove to be a Summer of Love in Baltimore, where local hero and free-agent-to-be Cal Ripken could yet go the way of the Colts. This may prove to be a sayonara summer in St. Louis, where, come fall, free-agent-to-be Ozzie Smith will in all likelihood be told by the Cardinals, "Close the Gateway Arch on your way out of town, won't you?" Free-agent-to-be Ruben Sierra may say see-ya to the Texas Rangers at season's end. And free-agent-to-be Barry Bonds of the Pirates is most assuredly playing his final season in Pittsburgh.

But Puck...no athlete is better loved by the hometown fans than Puckett is in Minnesota. The Summer of Love has been in full swing for some time now in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Calendar be damned, the Summer began in earnest on May 26, when Puckett and his agent, Ron Shapiro, ominously suspended contract negotiations with the Twins until the end of the season. That was after Twins owner Carl Pohlad reportedly balked at a proposal that was in the tony—but hardly exclusive—neighborhood of $27.5 million for five years.

Puckett immediately burst into flames, in flagrant violation of the Metrodome's strict No Smoking policy. As of Sunday, he had hit .378 with six home runs, including the two grand salamis, and 23 RBIs in the 16 games since the impasse. He led the American League in batting (.348), runs, hits and total bases, and was second in RBIs, with 52. And the possibility of his departure has further galvanized this thing he has had with Twins fans for all eight seasons of his Hall of Fame career. To borrow a song title from the Whispers: It's a Love Thang.

"I'm a little surprised," says Twins general manager Andy MacPhail. "Not at the fan reaction—that was predictable—but at how long it has continued. It isn't subsiding at all. I think it's had a longer life, in part, because Kirby got hot. But nothing holds people's attention for very long. This has."

"The World Series didn't generate this same kind of fever," says Gregg Swedberg, program director at all-sports radio station KFAN in the Twin Cities. "Our calls have been almost entirely pro-Puckett, with an underlying current of gloom and doom—a feeling that because this is Minneapolis, we will not be able to get it done."

Because this is Minneapolis. There is one set of Twins in the Hall of Fame: Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew. Both men finished their careers outside of Minnesota—Killebrew with the Kansas City Royals, Carew with the California Angels. Both were let go by Calvin Griffith, the penurious crank who sold the Twins in 1984 to Pohlad, who bought the franchise for $43 million. And even Griffith is on record as saying the Twins have to re-sign Puckett, though he did preach caution in a brief appearance on Minneapolis TV last week. "These salaries today are really out of line," quoth Calvin. "Ballplayers ain't like singers or movie stars, who can keep [generating revenue] for 20 years after they're dead."

That may prove to be the one flaw in Puckett's game: Sure he can produce—but can he produce posthumously? The majority of Minnesotans might in fact answer yes to that question. Consider that 81% of the 9,220 respondents to a recent poll taken by the St. Paul Pioneer Press agreed with the following statement: "Kirby Puckett is worth whatever it takes for the Twins to sign him." One person in the minority scrawled "Greed!" on his or her response, and then added as an afterthought, "He hit into more double plays than anyone last year." But the bulk of the respondents selflessly showed that in spite of the recession, they are not afraid to freely spend another man's money.

He is called many things, is Carl Pohlad. These days most of those things are impolite. We merely called him up, telephoning his office at the Marquette Banks building in downtown Minneapolis to request an interview "regarding the Twins."

"Is this about the Twins?" asked his secretary, with what we presumed to be an arched eyebrow. "Or is this about...Puckett?"

Pohlad never called back, which is too bad, because if any man ever deserved to air his side of something, it is he. The tall, white-haired, 76-year-old Minneapolis banker has been portrayed by at least one local scribe as a farm-foreclosing Scrooge. Another recently referred to Pohlad—eight times in one column—as an "arrogant butthead."

"I feel for the owner," says MacPhail. "He took the team over in September of 1984 and has won two world championships, which no one else has done in that time. He's brought a lot of joy to the state and the region. And it's never enough. No, I shouldn't say that. But it just never ends."

In fact, it has only begun. Several hundred people attended something called the Pohlad Pay Puckett Peace Rally in downtown Minneapolis last Friday, despite the 90° heat radiating from the pavement. You don't think this is serious? To the haunting rhythm of a lone tambourine, the gathered masses swayed in unison and sang as one, "All we are saaayyiiing...is giiive Puck the caaash." This went on for two hours. And they say activism is dead. Summer of Love, indeed.

Meanwhile, a plane was flying high above Minneapolis, pulling a banner that echoed those sentiments: POHLAD—GIVE PUCK THE CASH. "The plane will buzz Pohlad's office," a peace-rally organizer had promised the day before. But the aerial assault on the Marquette Banks building never took place. Those attending the Puck-in, and others filing into the Metrodome, made do with 8,000 Pohlad masks—actually, enlarged mug shots of the man, attached to tongue depressors—which were distributed by volunteers who called their wares "Carl-on-a-Stick."

Everywhere one turned—or at least everywhere one turned one's radio dial—Pohlad was being shish-kebabed. "He's liquidating to sell the team!" shrieked a caller to KFAN named John, who then hinted at some sort of armed reprisal: "He'd do best to sell and get out of town, because there will be quite an uprising."

Is Pohlad guilty of stinginess? (All those who've raised your hands, consider this: Isn't it possible that Pohlad feels pressure from other owners to keep salaries sedate?) Is Puckett guilty of greed? (All those who've raised your hands, consider this: Isn't it possible that Puckett feels pressure from the players union to push the salary envelope?)

Who's right? Who's wrong? Who's to say?

To pay or not to pay: The burning question is not confined to Minneapolis. "It is here, too," says Shapiro from his office overlooking Oriole Park at Camden Yards in downtown Baltimore, where he represents Ripken as well as Puckett. "[Ripken's contract] is not only the talk of the sports talk shows in Baltimore; it is the talk of the nonsports talk shows as well."

Shapiro says he is aware of the stakes that Minnesota and Baltimore have in Puckett and Ripken. He is aware of his own enormous responsibility. Taking Puckett from Minneapolis, removing Ripken from Baltimore—it would be like snatching a piece of each city's skyline, carving off a part of a region's identity. "I'm aware of that," says Shapiro. "And it always weighs on me. These are two unique individuals."

Both are 31. Both are the lone athletic superstars in their respective cities. Both live in those metropolises year-round. Both have immaculate reputations. Both are philanthropic. Both may be, incongruously, the best player in the game. And both have a chance to play their entire careers for single franchises, before fans who love them.

Yet, The Washington Post reported last week that Ripken has already turned down a five-year, $30 million offer from Oriole owner Eli Jacobs. (In this first year in their new ballpark, the O's may gross twice as much money as the Twins, whose revenues will be about $40 million in 1992.) So what gives? "I don't want to get into any specifics," says Ripken. "If you think about it, it'll distract you."

Puckett is similarly ill at ease on the subject of his future, though he does become at least irritably animated when asked why he spoke of his Twins career in the past tense during an interview, videotaped in Kansas City, that made the 10 o'clock news in the Twin Cities last week. "Past tense?" he says. "What? I don't know how you're hearing that."

They are friends, Puckett and Ripken, and they are indeed unique. It is impossible to picture either in a uniform other than the one each is currently wearing. That is somehow not the case with Smith in St. Louis. (He will be 38 next season and, in discussing his professional future, acknowledges, "It's not up to me.") Nor is it the case with Bonds, 27, in Pittsburgh. ("I just want to have a good year and leave here with a good feeling," he has already said.) And it is not the case with Sierra, 26, in Texas. ("I want to stay here," he says. Says general partner George W. Bush, "Do we want to keep Ruben? Certainly. Will we bankrupt our franchise for one player? Absolutely not.")

But for Puckett and Ripken the question hangs there like a Danny Jackson curveball: If you have found love, home and happiness in your respective cities, what's another million dollars? Players can talk all they want about needing security for their families. "But for how many generations?" asks MacPhail in all seriousness. The Pucketts and the Ripkens are already set for life.

The answer lies in an appeal to pride. Ripken is only the third-highest-paid Oriole (behind Glenn Davis and Storm Davis). Puckett's $3 million annual salary is less than half that of 32-year-old Ryne Sandberg of the Chicago Cubs, who signed for $7.1 million this spring. "Both men," says Shapiro of his clients, "deserve to be treated as the best in the game."

Perhaps they already are. In this, the Summer of Love, Puck might do best to remember the words of the Beatles, who sang, "I don't care too much for money/Money can't buy me love." Never mind how many millions the Beatles may have earned from that single. It's the sentiment that counts.

Can't buy me love, Kirby Puckett. Think about it. As you deposited a two-run taser dart into the leftfield stands of the Metrodome last Friday night, not far from where you jacked one last October to win Game 6 of the Series, you were given yet another lusty standing ovation. High above those bleachers fluttered a bedsheet that bore the outline of the state of Minnesota and the caption KIRBY'S WORLD. It is indeed your world, Kirby Puckett, and the rest of Minnesota's residents merely live in it.

Among the inhabitants of your planet, Puck, are Kevin Lindstrom and Rick Torkelson, both of Fergus Falls, Minn. They are the two gentlemen who had hung the bedsheet from the upper deck at Royals Stadium in Kansas City earlier in the week, the bedsheet that read SIGN KIRBY OR WE'LL JUMP. "We might actually do it," said Lindstrom, 26, before he hung the same sheet 100 feet above the Metrodome carpet last Friday. Torkelson, 23, was only slightly less intrepid. "We might do something with bungee cords," he said.

Finally, Puck, you should know that among the other inhabitants of your world are Pohlad and MacPhail. Pohlad stood and applauded as you circled the bases on Friday night. And why wouldn't he have? At times like that, he is an unabashed fan, like everyone else. "What I really hate about these things is that you sometimes find yourself cast in adversarial roles," says MacPhail. "You spend six months rooting for the guy. People shouldn't then think that every time he gets a big hit for us, we're crying. That's crazy." You don't think MacPhail wants to re-sign Puckett? It isn't his money, you know.

Which brings us to you, Carl Pohlad. In this, the Summer of Love, you, too, would do well to remember the words of the Beatles, who sang, "I'll buy you a diamond ring my friend if it makes you feel all right/I'll give you anything my friend if it makes you feel all right." In your case, you see, money can buy you love.

PHOTOJOHN BIEVER FOUR PHOTOSJOHN BIEVERThe citizens of the Twin Cities have rendered their opinion loud and clear: Puckett is the hero, Pohlad is the villain, and Puck deserves the bucks—as many as it takes. PHOTOSCOTT JORDAN LEVYSince his contract negotiations broke down, Puckett has been on a hitting spree—not that his devotees needed more convincing. PHOTOPHIL HUBER[See caption above.] PHOTOSCOTT JORDAN LEVYSierra is an asset, but Texas may find his price too high. PHOTOMITCHELL LAYTONRipken is beloved in Baltimore, but can the O's put enough zeros on his '93 paychecks? PHOTOMITCHELL LAYTONBonds has made it clear that he doesn't intend to sit around Pittsburgh another year.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)