"You have to be black or a very good friend of mine to get on," says Puckett sweetly.
Laudner, a large, rugged man, bear hugs Puckett and plants a huge kiss on his cheek. "He never ceases to amaze me," says Laudner later. "He's from the projects, but he doesn't seem to carry his past environment around with him. I just have the utmost respect for him."
Last year Reggie Jackson blasted the Twins organization for being a bastion of whiteness and apparent intolerance. He noted that early in the season Puckett was the only black on the squad and charged that the club seemed committed to keeping its image as fair-skinned as possible.
"It didn't mean anything to my teammates or me," says Puckett now. "Nobody came up to me and said, 'Hey, Kirby, you're the only black on the team!' Reggie has his feelings, and I respect them. But I believe that a person's a person, not a color. My parents raised me to have no prejudices."
Every year since college Puckett has shaved his head at the start of the season. "The guys rub my head and relax," he says. "I don't care what people think. Somebody's got to be the good luck charm. I love my teammates."
Puckett also loves his adopted home of Minneapolis. He was married there last November, and he and his wife, Tonya, built a house in suburban Brooklyn Park. "There is no prejudice in Minneapolis at all," Puckett insists. "It's one of the best places for interracial things, the kind of place that you want your kids to grow up in. Even if I get traded I'll keep a house in Minneapolis."
Puckett is the last one to leave the locker room, and he carries with him one of his oversized bats. He likes to hold the wood. He likes the feeling of the skinny handle in his palms and all that heft at the other end. Tonight he'll put some music on his stereo and stand in his living room and swing the bat a few hundred times just for the sheer pleasure of it.
An elderly man approaches him in the parking lot and asks for directions to a building. Puckett patiently obliges. The man nods and shuffles off. Walking to his car, Puckett says, "I might be old someday and want directions. And I hope that I get treated nicely, too."
On the freeway home, Puckett allows, "Not many people don't like Kirby Puckett."
Who could? Puckett, who makes $365,000 per year, is woefully underpaid for a star who led his team in 11 offensive categories last season. "I don't really even think about it," he says. "When I'm done with baseball, I'll call a press conference, thank everyone and leave with dignity. Like a professional. I won't hang on for money."