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What made Kirby Puckett one of the best Twins of all time

REUTERS/Gary Hershorn
Minnesota Twins Kirby Puckett (2nd R) celebrates with teammates Kent Hrbek (L), Greg Gagne (2nd L) and Don Baylor (R) after Hrbek hitting a grand slam in Game 6 of the 1987 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Kirby Puckett played twelve seasons as a center fielder for the Minnesota Twins. Known for both his playing skills and his spirit, “Puck” played a major role in rejuvenating the team and leading them to World Series victories in 1987 and 1991. Although his career was cut short by eye problems, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001.

Kirby Puckett was born Anthony Kirby Puckett on March 14, 1960, to William and Catherine Puckett in Chicago, Illinois. One of nine children, he played baseball for Calumet High School, Bradley University in Peoria, and Triton Junior College in Chicago. In the January 1982 entry draft, the Minnesota Twins selected Puckett third overall. He bought a house in Brooklyn Park and later moved to Edina.

On May 8, 1984, Puckett recorded four hits in his first game, finishing the season with 165 hits in 128 games and helping the team finish second in the American League West. He increased his total to 199 the following season. He was known for his speed, and also for robbing opponents of home runs with his leaping catches. His defensive statistics were among the best in baseball.

In the 1986 season, he recorded thirty-one home runs and 223 hits and was elected to his first All-Star team. Puckett led the American League in hits in 1987, with 207, and helped the Twins win the American League Championship Series (ALCS) for the second time in the team’s history. Puckett then batted .357 with ten hits to help the Twins win their first World Series championship.

The success of Puckett and the Twins energized fans and helped raise ticket sales from 860,000 in 1983 to three million in 1988. That year, he had career highs in runs batted in (121), batting average (.356), and hits (234). Despite Puckett’s performance, the Twins dropped to second place. They fell to fifth in 1989, although Puckett led the American League in hits and batting average. The Twins recognized Puckett’s importance by offering him a contract that, at the time, was the largest in baseball history.

Puckett’s numbers dropped the following year, and the Twins finished the season in last place. His offensive performance improved in 1991, when his spirit and leadership helped propel the team to a first-place finish. They won the ALCS again and advanced to the World Series against the Atlanta Braves. Down three games to two, Puckett famously told his teammates to jump on his back and promised to carry them to victory. That night, he recorded four hits, including the game-winning home run. The Twins won the series, marking the first time a team won the World Series after finishing last the previous year.

In 1992, Puckett led the league in hits and finished second in Most Valuable Player voting. His performance remained strong in the following seasons and he led the American League in runs batted in (RBIs) during the 1994 season. In September 1995 a wild pitch broke his jaw, ending his season. During spring training in 1996, he woke up one morning unable to see from his right eye. He underwent multiple surgeries, but doctors were unable to restore his vision.

Puckett announced his retirement on July 12, 1996. He left baseball with a career .318 batting average, 2,304 hits, and 1,085 RBIs. Puckett was named to ten All-Star teams and received six Silver Slugger Awards for his offensive skills as well as six Gold Gloves for his defense. Despite his shortened career, he remains among the all-time Twins leaders in many offensive categories.

Puckett’s jersey number, thirty-four, was retired in 1997. He remained with the team as executive vice president. He also continued the charity work that won him Major League Baseball’s Branch Rickey and Roberto Clemente Awards. Puckett worked with Partnership for a Drug Free America, the Children’s Heart Fund, the Glaucoma Foundation, and other organizations. In 2001, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Puckett suffered a stroke on March 5, 2006, and died the following day. He was forty-five years old.

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