The Minnesota twins are teeing off on the Seattle Mariners in the HumpDome. Doubles, home runs and RBIs are coming cheap. Almost every Twin in the lineup gets a hit tonight—except the cubelike centerfielder wearing the size 8½ shoes. The rotund little guy is Kirby Puckett, and this isn't normal. Puckett hits. He has led the league in hits for much of this season. But tonight he can't get started.
The Twins win 13-5, as Puckett goes 0 for 3. Puckett rarely goes 0 for anything, but in the clubhouse after the game there's no sulking in the corner. Instead, there's Puckett wearing his enormous grin and visiting the locker of every one of his teammates, pitchers and nonstarters included, shaking every hand in sight and saying, "Way to go!" And the weird thing is, he means it.
"We won, we're having fun," he says. "I'm having fun." Indeed, the Twins have enjoyed surprising success this season, hovering at or near the top of the American League West largely because of the exuberant Puckett.
"He's got this charisma," says teammate Al Newman. "He's always smiling. I've never heard him booed. When I first came here I said, 'How can this guy throw? How can he hit?' He's the eighth wonder of the world."
After Puckett completes his congratulatory tour of the clubhouse, a Minneapolis reporter tells him that the 5'8" Newman has claimed to be taller than Puckett, who's also listed at 5'8". Confront most major league batting stars with a comment like that after a hitless night and you might find yourself wearing Louisville Slugger dentures. "Al had two hits tonight," says Puckett, breaking into the big grin. "I guess he is taller."
Meanwhile, over in the opponents' locker room, Mariners manager Dick Williams speaks for many when he says, "I just love watching Puckett play. You can just sense how much he enjoys the game. It oozes from him. Baseball needs a lot more Kirby Pucketts."
In a doubleheader against Detroit last week, Puckett, 26, staged a more typical assault on the stat sheet with two RBIs, two runs scored, a stolen base—and six hits. "It's like what Wade Boggs told me," says Puckett, " 'One a day keeps the doctor away.' And he didn't mean apples."
He didn't mean taters, either, but for good measure Puckett has 10 of those. Inch for inch, he's the strongest man in the game, able to do bench-press repetitions with 365-pound weights. Last season, his third in the majors, Puckett hit 31 homers, some of them stunners. One at Yankee Stadium bounced off the Babe Ruth monument in left center. "I've hit a few home runs, but never one that far," marveled 6'4", 216-pound teammate Tom Brunansky. And there was a blast off Jack Morris in Detroit that almost drilled a hole in the outfield stands. "If the wind hadn't been blowing in, I swear that ball would have been over the roof," says Twins manager Tom Kelly. During a batting practice in spring training this year, Puckett was bombing balls over the fence, causing so much damage to the cars parked on the other side that an Orlando police sergeant threatened to have him arrested.
Puckett hits the ball shockingly hard to all fields, so hard that infielders don't dare blink while he's at the plate. In the season's first series against Seattle, Puckett hit a shot that shattered the cheekbone of Mariners pitcher Steve Shields. Puckett yelled "Watch out!" to Shields, but the unfortunate pitcher had no chance of dodging the bullet.
The strongest little man in baseball may also be the sweetest. Everybody loves Kirby Puckett. His teammates love him. The Minnesota fans love him. The Twins front office loves him; the promotions people are even talking about marketing a Kirby Bear. It would likely be a hot item because kids in particular are drawn to Puckett. He is their smiling buddy, a real-life Smurf. "Something about the guy just makes you feel good," says Kelly.