Fans remember baseball icon, Minnesota legend

Robert Mews

For many fans and baseball players, the embodiment of Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett goes beyond the home runs, Gold Glove awards and World Series championships even after his death.

Puckett, 45, who led the Minnesota Twins to two World Series championships, died Monday, one day after suffering a stroke in his Scottsdale, Ariz., home.

Puckett was a fixture in the Twins organization for 12 seasons – from 1984 to 1996.

His career was cut short in 1996 with the discovery of glaucoma in his right eye.

His career batting average of .318 is second highest in team history. He also captured six Gold Gloves, played in 10 All-Star games, won World Series rings in 1987 and 1991 and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2001.

Yet many people will not remember the numbers so much as the excitement and enthusiasm he displayed during his time in Minnesota.

“Everything was memorable about Kirby,” said nursing student Josh Johnson. “I mean, you go to one game for the Twins and you’re there and everyone is paying attention to him.”

Johnson – a Puckett fan and native of Moorhead – recalled the excitement of Puckett when he was 13 and his dad took him to Game 6 of the 1991 World Series.

“We were hoping Game 6 would be the winning one,” Johnson said. “But we were there and Kirby was just awesome that night.”

Down three games to two in the series, Puckett told everyone he’d lead the Twins to a Game 6 win.

He did just that when he hit a game-winning home run over the Metrodome left field wall in the 11th inning.

“He had one of the better games and everyone was cheering afterwards, ‘Kirby, Kirby, Kirby, Kirby,’ ” Johnson said of the game.

Minnesota baseball player and Richfield native Mike Mee remembered being at Game 6, and also remembers Puckett’s persona.

“He was always a guy that had a smile on his face Ö a fun-loving guy,” Mee said. “He played the game right, and he played the game the way the Minnesota Twins want to portray in their organization.”

Puckett did more than just portray the Twins in a positive light. He helped create the Puckett Scholars Program in 1994.

Since its creation, 45 students have been able to receive an education through the University.

“I think it was (a) really good example of someone trying to help individuals from similar backgrounds as him,” said University relations office Dan Wolter. “In many cases it really did open a door for them.”

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Gophers baseball coach John Anderson said he knew Puckett more as a friend.

“Kirby and I developed a friendship back when he first got up in the big leagues here in Minnesota,” Anderson said. “He used to come over here and work out and we played some pickup basketball together.”

Anderson also remembers the Puckett smile.

“He was a wonderful person, very genuine, infectious smile and inspired everybody,” Anderson said. “He had time for just about anybody, regardless to who they were and gave everybody a nickname, had fun with everyone, and he meant a lot to baseball – not only in Minnesota, but across the country and globe.”

And while Puckett dealt with legal issues after early retirement, Johnson and others don’t believe it tarnishes his legacy.

“The important thing to remember are the good things he did, especially now,” Johnson said. “We don’t want to learn from the bad things. We want to learn from the good things.