"I love the game," Puckett says, trying to explain his enthusiasm. "This is fun for me. It was fun when I was a kid. It is now. I didn't play baseball so I could get out of the ghetto. I played because I enjoyed baseball." He gazes out at the blues and greens and smiles as if it's all so obvious. "And now look, I'm in the big leagues!"
In a sense, Puckett is from the big leagues. The Robert Taylor Homes on Chicago's South Side are the World Series champions of inner-city, abandon-hope-all-ye-who-enter-here public housing projects. Puckett spent the first 12 years of his life in the 15-block row of look-alike buildings, in a 14th-floor apartment. The elevator seldom worked. The Homes are a breeding ground for crime and drug addiction; Newsweek recently described them as the "place where hope died."
Comiskey Park stands just four blocks away from the northern end of the Homes, but cut off by the 14-lane Dan Ryan Expressway, it might as well be in Montana for all the connection it has with the projects. The youngest of nine children, Kirby played ball and ignored the despair around him. "It wasn't really important, the gangs and all that stuff," he insists. "I was a kid enjoying myself. I'd come home from school, do my homework, then look for kids to play ball with. If nobody'd play, I'd just throw strikes against the wall or hit rolled-up socks in my room. I loved baseball so much I was always thinking of ways I could keep playing."
"Sometimes he'd play in the back where they pick up the garbage," says his mother, Catherine. "And sometimes older boys would hit his ball across the expressway, and he would come upstairs crying. It was a tough area, but you don't have to be like everybody else. People survived, is what I mean. We survived."
At Calumet High, Kirby starred as a third baseman. But he never felt right for the position. "At third you have to hit homers, and I didn't," he says. Puckett was a speedster who hit singles to the opposite field. So he took stock one day and made a major decision.
"It was no secret I wasn't going to be tall," he says. "So I figured if I can't be tall, I'll be strong. A bodybuilder, like Arnold Schwarzenegger."
He pumped iron throughout high school, but it wasn't enough. He received no baseball offers as a senior, and after graduation he went to work at a Ford plant. The following summer, Bradley University coach Dewey Kalmer spotted Puckett at a Kansas City Royals free-agent tryout and offered him a scholarship. By now Puckett was a rock-hard 175 pounds but, as Kalmer recalls, "not a real good player, a short-armed third baseman who swung at everything." He was fast, however, and Kalmer moved him to centerfield, where Puckett made the all-Missouri Valley Conference team.
Puckett left Bradley after his first year when his father, a postal worker, died. To be nearer his mother, he enrolled at Triton Community College in River Grove, Ill. At Triton he broke loose. In his one season there, 1982, he hit .472 with 42 stolen bases. He had 16 home runs for the year, and when opponents routinely tested the little fella's arm, he would routinely gun them down. The Twins drafted Puckett in the first round of the January '82 draft, but in the minors his weight-room power vanished. In more than two seasons of minor league ball he hit just 13 home runs. The only significant addition to his musculature was a KIRBY tattoo on his left bicep. "I got that at Lou's Tattoos in Clearwater. Eight bucks," he says. "I just got kinda bored."
When Puckett joined the Twins in May 1984, the power drought continued; he did not hit a home run the entire season. In '85, he hit just four homers, while leading the league with 691 at bats. As a major leaguer he could be counted on to hit a tater every 312 times he came to the plate, a decidedly wimpish ratio.
But last year Puckett exploded. In his first 24 games he had 11 home runs; for the season he had 31, or one every 22 times at bat. He also batted .328, led the Twins in stolen bases (20), won his first Gold Glove (AL managers had already voted Puckett and Boston's Dwight Evans the two best outfield arms in the league) and finished sixth in the league MVP voting. He was second in the league in runs scored (119), hits (223) and total bases (365), and led all American Leaguers in percentage of their team's runs produced (14.8%).