He is called puck—not because his surname is Puckett but because he is hewn from a slab of vulcanized rubber. Minnesota Twins fans tend to stand whenever they're in the presence of Puck. This is how it works: They stand, he delivers. In fact, he is as hot as he is squat. Puck, all 5'8" of him, recently hit two grand slams in six days in the midst of a seven-game, .531 batting binge. Oh, and Puck is a free agent at the end of this season. If this is Puck's final summer in Minnesota, then Minnesotans are making this the Summer of Love.
"The fans here have always been good to me," Twins centerfielder Kirby Puckett was saying last Friday night at the Metrodome. "But for everything I do now, they give me a standing ovation. I've never seen anything like this. Everything I do, they give a standing ovation. How could I feel anything but overwhelmed?"
Puckett isn't the only megastar this season who is tasting the sweet-and-sour emotions of a possible last hurrah. This may also prove to be a Summer of Love in Baltimore, where local hero and free-agent-to-be Cal Ripken could yet go the way of the Colts. This may prove to be a sayonara summer in St. Louis, where, come fall, free-agent-to-be Ozzie Smith will in all likelihood be told by the Cardinals, "Close the Gateway Arch on your way out of town, won't you?" Free-agent-to-be Ruben Sierra may say see-ya to the Texas Rangers at season's end. And free-agent-to-be Barry Bonds of the Pirates is most assuredly playing his final season in Pittsburgh.
But Puck...no athlete is better loved by the hometown fans than Puckett is in Minnesota. The Summer of Love has been in full swing for some time now in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Calendar be damned, the Summer began in earnest on May 26, when Puckett and his agent, Ron Shapiro, ominously suspended contract negotiations with the Twins until the end of the season. That was after Twins owner Carl Pohlad reportedly balked at a proposal that was in the tony—but hardly exclusive—neighborhood of $27.5 million for five years.
Puckett immediately burst into flames, in flagrant violation of the Metrodome's strict No Smoking policy. As of Sunday, he had hit .378 with six home runs, including the two grand salamis, and 23 RBIs in the 16 games since the impasse. He led the American League in batting (.348), runs, hits and total bases, and was second in RBIs, with 52. And the possibility of his departure has further galvanized this thing he has had with Twins fans for all eight seasons of his Hall of Fame career. To borrow a song title from the Whispers: It's a Love Thang.
"I'm a little surprised," says Twins general manager Andy MacPhail. "Not at the fan reaction—that was predictable—but at how long it has continued. It isn't subsiding at all. I think it's had a longer life, in part, because Kirby got hot. But nothing holds people's attention for very long. This has."
"The World Series didn't generate this same kind of fever," says Gregg Swedberg, program director at all-sports radio station KFAN in the Twin Cities. "Our calls have been almost entirely pro-Puckett, with an underlying current of gloom and doom—a feeling that because this is Minneapolis, we will not be able to get it done."
Because this is Minneapolis. There is one set of Twins in the Hall of Fame: Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew. Both men finished their careers outside of Minnesota—Killebrew with the Kansas City Royals, Carew with the California Angels. Both were let go by Calvin Griffith, the penurious crank who sold the Twins in 1984 to Pohlad, who bought the franchise for $43 million. And even Griffith is on record as saying the Twins have to re-sign Puckett, though he did preach caution in a brief appearance on Minneapolis TV last week. "These salaries today are really out of line," quoth Calvin. "Ballplayers ain't like singers or movie stars, who can keep [generating revenue] for 20 years after they're dead."
That may prove to be the one flaw in Puckett's game: Sure he can produce—but can he produce posthumously? The majority of Minnesotans might in fact answer yes to that question. Consider that 81% of the 9,220 respondents to a recent poll taken by the St. Paul Pioneer Press agreed with the following statement: "Kirby Puckett is worth whatever it takes for the Twins to sign him." One person in the minority scrawled "Greed!" on his or her response, and then added as an afterthought, "He hit into more double plays than anyone last year." But the bulk of the respondents selflessly showed that in spite of the recession, they are not afraid to freely spend another man's money.
He is called many things, is Carl Pohlad. These days most of those things are impolite. We merely called him up, telephoning his office at the Marquette Banks building in downtown Minneapolis to request an interview "regarding the Twins."