Well, um, God, maybe?
"Listen," Puckett patiently explains. "I've always been a person who believes things happen for a reason, though we may never know that reason. So I don't do any soul-searching; I just go on. I knew that baseball wasn't going to last forever. It was great living in a fairy tale for 12 years, traveling and meeting people I would have never met outside the game, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
"Didn't I always have a smile on my face? I may not have been the prettiest thing in the world, but I gave all I had. So now that it's over, I don't have to look in the mirror and say, 'I wish I had done this.' When I look in the mirror every day I say, 'Aaaaaaaah.' " Puckett leans back in his swivel chair and smiles serenely. " 'I can't believe that I played.' I just thank God that I got the chance to live out the dream that I had since I was five years old.
"Isn't that the way life's supposed to be?" asks Puckett, going to his office fridge, cracking open a soda and handing it to his guest before he can ask another impertinent question. "I think I helped people along the way, and hopefully I'll be able to continue to help people from this position I'm in now." He pauses. "I'm 36 years old, man, what am I supposed to do? Just stop living?"
Well...yes, actually, that's exactly what was expected of him. People, he sensed last summer, felt sorry for him, hesitating, for the first time in his memory, to interrupt his dinners or to shout to him on the street. Puckett finds it remarkable that anyone could feel sorry for a man who is now in the final year of a contract that will pay him $6 million this season, $6 million to occasionally pop into the office of the last-place Twins and, in his words, "Keep hope alive in this organization." The irony is that Puckett was raised in "a place where hope died," as Newsweek once described the Robert Taylor Homes housing project, nine blocks from old Comiskey Park in Chicago.
The former centerfielder only permits himself one regret, and it is a mild one: He would have liked to have played another four years—he asserts that he could have gotten 180 RBIs last season, and it isn't clear if he's kidding—and reached 3,000 hits. It would have been a likely milestone. Only Willie Keeler had more hits in his first 10 years in the big leagues (2,065) than Puckett (2,040).
People forget that Puckett was a base-stealing, singles-hitting sprite who batted leadoff in his first three seasons with the Twins. Only then did he remake himself into a number-three hitter who would average 98 RBIs a year for the next nine seasons. "Most guys hitting .300 would not have changed," says former Minnesota outfielder and three-time American League batting champ Tony Oliva, who was Puckett's hitting instructor for many of those years. "But he realized that when he hit the ball, it was like a bullet. He hit line drives into the outfield fence: Boom! So he tried hitting for power, and pretty soon he was smashing windshields in the parking lot."
Ah, yes. During that power epiphany in the spring of 1986, Puckett hit 10 consecutive balls over the fence in Orlando, and each time he heard the sound of breaking glass. "Little did I know," says Puckett, "that they had some kind of auto show going on next door. A policeman drove his motorcycle onto the field and told Puckett, "Swing at one more pitch, and I will put you in jail."
"If I knew there were cars out there," Puckett says now, seriously, "I'd have made an adjustment and gone to right."
He could have, too. Puckett sat in the infield of an empty Milwaukee County Stadium one Saturday morning in 1987 to talk hitting with Oliva, and went 10 for 11 in the next two games. With the Twins facing elimination in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series against the Atlanta Braves, Puckett singled, tripled, drove in a run with a sacrifice fly, stole a base, scored a run, robbed Ron Gant of extra bases with a Ringling Brothers catch against the Metrodome's Plexiglas centerfield wall and hit the game-winning home run in the 11th inning. In his career he won two World Series, six Gold Gloves and a batting title. In his final season, 1995, Puckett hit .314 with 23 home runs and 99 RBIs, winding up with 2,304 career hits. "I think I got better as I got older," he says.