Puckett in Hall of Fame was a no-brainer all along

On July 12, 1996 Kirby Puckett walked into the Halsey Hall room inside the Metrodome with his wife, Tonya, each sporting sunglasses.
These were sunglasses that hid Kirby’s damaged right eye, killed his 12-year career and robbed Minnesota of its greatest athlete ever.
These sunglasses also hid tears that freely flowed from the faces of Puckett, Minnesota and Major League Baseball.
“Looks like it’s a good day for Minnesota today,” Puckett said. “We generally call this room the ‘Room of Doom.’ We don’t have to retire in this room — and that was a sad day.”
These comments were made Tuesday afternoon by that same man — five years later and some 50 pounds heavier — in the very same room he was forced from the game he loved like no other human being could.
No sunglasses were needed on this day; only the words, “thank you” sandwiched around stories from a storybook career and laughs from the genuine storyteller.
Baseball reopened its doors for Puck, who received a whopping 82 percent of the 515 votes from the Baseball Writers Association of America on his first ballot. 75 percent are needed to be enshrined.
Forget Puckett joining Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew as the only Twins in Cooperstown. Forget being the third youngest inductee ever, or the 36th player inducted in his first year of eligibility.
The real number is 44, as in the 44th Hall of Famer to don one jersey in his career. “There will be no fight about what hat I’ll put on,” he said.
Former Gopher, St. Paul native and Puckett teammate Dave Winfield is the only other guest invited into Cooperstown this year. Puck and Winny are the fourth set of teammates to be enshrined in the same year.
Winfield got his 3,000th hit as a Twin, a feather in his storied career, but the day belonged to number 34: a player and person the likes of which will never be duplicated in Minnesota sports again.
The numbers are gaudy: .318 career batting average, 1,085 RBIs, ten All-Star Games, a batting title, more hits in his first ten seasons than anyone in the 20th century and six Gold Gloves. The numbers may or may not be Hall-of-Fame material by itself.
What is Hall-of-Fame material are his two World Series rings. His game six performance in 1991 is the greatest individual performance in Minnesota history, played in the greatest World Series ever.
He did it all that October night, including the game-winning home run in the bottom of the 11th off Braves’ goat Charlie Liebrandt, prompting CBS announcer Jack Buck’s famous one-liner.
As an introduction, Puck tripled in a run, singled, stole a base, drove in another run on a sacrifice fly and scored a run of his own. In the third he made a leaping catch off the Plexiglass to rob Atlanta of a run, prompting Ernie Harwell to call Puckett’s catch “one of those memorable World Series pictures that stands the test of time.”
And, despite glaucoma ending his career with no warning, Puckett himself stands the test of time.
“Sometimes things happen for a reason,” Puckett said. “I grew up in tough times [Chicago’s south side] with nine kids and to get beat up as much as I did …
“(Glaucoma) is here and it’s reality. We all have problems. What do we do? We deal with them.”
Puckett lost two brothers in the last 14 months. “It’s been a tough 14 months, but we still have four boys and three girls left. I wish my parents could be here, but I know they’re smiling down on me.”
Nobody smiles like Puckett. Nobody played the game like Puckett. Nobody meant more to the Twins than Kirby. Nobody represented baseball better than Puckett. Few mean more to their community than Puck.
“For the last two weeks, all we’ve been hearing is that they reserve the first ballot election for someone special,” Twins president Jerry Bell said.
“They were right.”
Years from now, when the generations of fans who saw a little chubby centerfielder sign autographs for free and run out double plays in spring training tell their kids they can be the best at anything they want, they’ll have a source to cite.
“I never played baseball to be in this position,” Puckett said. “I played because I loved the game of baseball since I was five years old. I had no idea I would do everything I did in my career, but I knew one thing, and that’s that I played hard every time I stepped on the field.
“I fooled them all again.”

Mark Heller is the assistant sports editor and welcomes comments at [email protected]