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In the Twin Cities, and in much of the upper Midwest, baseball fans will remember Kirby Puckett's ever-present smile and infectious exuberance -- it says, right on his Hall of Fame plaque, "ever-present smile and infectious exuberance" -- and his squat, bearish bearing.
They'll remember the clutch hits, a dozen years' worth of them, all in a Twins uniform. And they'll remember, most of all, a magical night in 1991 when Puckett delivered his team a win in Game 6 of one of the most memorable World Series ever.
And if they choose to suppress what happened after that -- the tragically abrupt retirement in 1996, the seedy stories and tarnishing of his once-flawless image, the final, bloated years -- who can fault them? Few athletes have meant as much to a franchise, as much to an entire region, as Puckett meant to the Twins and Minnesota.
"I've always been a person who believes things happen for a reason, though we may never know that reason," Puckett told Sports Illustrated in 1996, shortly after glaucoma stole the vision in his right eye, forcing him into an early retirement. "So I don't do any soul-searching; I just go on."
Puckett died Monday, just shy of his 46th birthday, forcing us all to grapple with the memory of a wonderfully talented, tragically flawed man.
As a ballplayer, as a representative of the Twins and of baseball for the 12 years from 1984-1995, Puckett was unsurpassed. His numbers speak volumes, as his first-ballot Hall of Fame election shows. He had more hits in his first 10 seasons (2,040) than anyone in history. He was a 10-time All-Star, and six times won the Gold Glove. He drove in more than 1,000 runs in just under 1,800 games. He carried a .318 lifetime batting average.
And he did it all with as much style as a 5-foot-8, 230-something pound bull of a man could. Which in Puckett's case was a lot. Indeed, he patrolled center field with an unbridled flair, dashing into the gaps and regularly scaling the outfield walls. "Puck" was a dervish on the basepaths, too, scoring almost as many runs as he drove in. "He's the eighth wonder of the world," teammate Al Newman once said.
No single game demonstrated more of Puckett's wonderful talents and immeasurable worth than Game 6 of the '91 World Series. With the Twins trailing the Braves, three games to two, Puckett morphed into a one-man All-Star team. He singled, tripled and stole a base. He drove in a run in the first inning and scored another. In the third inning, he leaped against the wall in center to steal a home run -- or at least a run-scoring extra-base hit -- from Atlanta's Ron Gant.
And on that night, Oct. 26, in the bottom of the 11th inning, Puckett blasted a solo homer off Braves lefty Charlie Leibrandt to win the game 4-3, tying the Series at three games apiece.
"Ten, 30, 50 years from now, when I look at it, it might be different," Puckett said after that game. "Right now? Unbelievable, man. Unbelievable."
The next night, Jack Morris pitched a 10-inning shutout in Game 7 as the Twins won the Series. It was the second World Series win for Puckett's Twins, who had beaten the Cardinals in seven games in '87. But after a 90-win season in 1992, the Twins fell on hard times. Puckett and his spotless image soon followed.