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Kirby Puckett once told me he could die happy in a fishing boat. "I don't go ice fishing," said the former Twins centerfielder, who had otherwise embraced Minnesota life. "I ain't gonna die on no ice. If I'm gonna die on water, I'm gonna die where it's warm."
I don't know which is more heartbreaking: that Puckett died last week at age 45 or that he'd been living in self-exile in the Arizona desert, about as far as a U.S. citizen can be--physically and spiritually--from the Land of Lakes that he loved.
In his 12 seasons with the Twins, the Chicago native became the most revered Minnesotan that ever was. "I've had everything in this town named after me, from a street to pancakes," he said in his office at 34 Kirby Puckett Place in the Metrodome in 1997, nine months after glaucoma forced him to retire in his late prime. "I've been on a Wheaties box several times," he said, one Minnesota icon invoking another. "I've got no complaints, man," said Puckett, by then blind in his right eye. "I got to live a fairy-tale life for 13 years."
That fairy tale was bookended by bleakness. Puckett and his nine siblings were raised two-to-a-twin-bed just nine blocks from Comiskey Park, in a housing project Newsweek described as "a place where hope died," an epithet Puckett often recited.
Like a lot of successful children whose parents died young, Puckett linked the years of their passings to what they lived to see him accomplish. "My dad died in 1980, when I went to college," he said. "My mom died in '89, when I won the batting title." He hit .339 that year, a figure I recite from memory.
I was in high school when he made his 4-for-5 debut with the Twins in Anaheim. When Puckett went 10 for 11 against the Brewers over a Saturday and Sunday in Milwaukee in '87, I was a college student whiling away a weekend in the County Stadium bleachers.
In '92, as a sportswriter, I flew with Puckett from the All-Star Game in San Diego and watched him wait forlornly at a baggage carousel in Minneapolis as Minnesotans buzzed in disbelief that Kirby Freaking Puckett was retrieving his own bags. "I pick my luggage off the baggage claim like anyone else," he felt compelled to say, noting that his brother Spencer, a Delta skycap, had been schlepping Samsonites at O'Hare for a quarter century.
His fame was extraordinarily intense in Minnesota and its colonies, such as the Twins' spring training complex in Florida, where a motorcycle cop once rode into the stadium during BP and said gravely, " Mr. Puckett, if you take one more swing, I'm going to have to arrest you." Puckett had broken several windshields in the parking lot beyond the leftfield wall, where an auto show was being held. "If I'd known that," Puckett later told me, entirely serious, "I'd have hit to right."
When his doctor at Johns Hopkins told him 10 years ago that he would never play baseball again, Puckett threw his hands in the air and said, "Thank you, Jesus!"
"Now I can go on with the rest of my life," he explained later. "Now I can watch my kids grow up. I'm gonna get a chance to do what I never got to do while I was playing baseball, which is--almost every day--go fishing."