Finally, Puckett and Winfield enter Cooperstown

Brian Hall

After seven long months, the wait is almost over for Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett.

On Sunday, the former teammates and close friends will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., as part of the Class of 2001. Former Pittsburgh Pirate second baseman Bill Mazeroski and Negro League pitcher Hilton Smith round out the class.

The ceremony ends a long and grueling process of countless interviews and public appearances Puckett and Winfield have made since the selections were announced last January.

“It’s been hectic,” Puckett said, “I wish I had my life back. But it will be over soon. After this Sunday, I will be able to go fishing again and my life will return to normal.

“You get elected in January. Later, they bring you in for orientation, and then I can’t talk until August. That is a long time to string something out. It’s finally here and I am looking forward to it.”

As of Tuesday, neither player had their speeches complete but each said they were about 99 percent finished.

“I plan to tell people a little about what is in my heart and in my mind,” Winfield said.

Winfield, a Minnesota native who attended the University, is entering Cooperstown as a San Diego Padre, the team he broke into the majors with in 1973. Puckett will enter as a Minnesota Twin, the team with which he spent his entire 12-year major league career.

Winfield attended the University on a baseball scholarship but soon became a two-sport star as a forward for the basketball team. After college, Winfield was one of the most highly sought-after athletes in the country, being drafted by four teams in three sports.

Winfield was drafted by the Padres in Major League baseball, the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA and the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL, though he never played football in college. He is still the only person ever to be drafted in all three professional sports. The Utah Stars of the ABA also drafted Winfield.

Despite the opportunity to play the sport of his choice, Winfield knew there was only one place for him, the baseball field.

“Growing up you have to have goals and dreams,” Winfield said. “My dream was playing major league baseball. I was able to live my dream for over 20 years.”

His resume boasts a 22-year career spent with six teams and a World Series title. On the eve of his Hall of Fame induction, it appears Winfield made the correct choice.

“This is all part of a really wonderful year for me,” Winfield said. “I feel like I had a fantastic career and I feel really good about it. And here I am five years later going into the Hall of Fame.”

The fascination of being a Hall-of-Famer continues for Puckett as he prepares for induction into the place he once thought reserved only for childhood heroes.

“I can’t believe people thought about me as a Hall-of-Famer,” Puckett said. “I idolized Ernie Banks and Billy Williams when I was a kid and those were my heroes. Now, my plaque will be hanging by their plaques.”

In honor of this weekend’s induction, General Mills unveiled a new Wheaties box on Tuesday commemorating this year’s Hall of Fame inductees. The box features Winfield on one side, Puckett the other.

It is the first time in the over 75-year history of Wheaties the package has featured two different cover designs on the same box.

For Winfield, it’s appearance number one on a Wheaties box. Puckett has appeared twice before as part of the Twins’ 1987 and 1991 World Championship teams.

“Wheaties has been around for so long,” Winfield said. “Everybody knows about Wheaties and relates it to champions. To be on the package with Kirby, another champion, is a wonderful thing.”

In his usual jovial mood, Puckett offered a different view of the appearance.

“I am honored and privileged just to be on a Wheaties box,” Puckett said. “I never thought of myself to be on a cereal box. But, I ate enough cereal as a kid. Maybe I should be on a box.”

The boxes have been released in stores nationwide.

“I can imagine people being excited,” Winfield said. “I think they’ll fly off the shelves.”

Probably in the same manner baseballs used to fly off the soon-to be Hall-of-Famer’s bat.

Brian Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]