Baseball reacts to Puckett's passing
Players, executives alike recall Hall of Famer's legacy
Kirby Puckett's passing sent shock waves across Spring Training camps from Arizona to Florida on Monday as baseball mourned the untimely death of the Hall of Famer.
Puckett, 45, passed away Monday afternoon due to complications from a stroke.
"This is a sad day for the Minnesota Twins, Major League Baseball and baseball fans everywhere," Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad said. "Eloise and I loved Kirby deeply. Kirby's impact on the Twins organization, State of Minnesota and Upper Midwest is significant and goes well beyond his role in helping the Twins win two world championships. A tremendous teammate, Kirby will always be remembered for his neverending hustle, infectious personality, trademark smile and commitment to the community. There will never be another 'Puck'."
Puckett stood only 5-feet, 8-inches tall, but he was a giant of his era. He was remembered by those who knew him as a lovable 212-pound bowling ball of a center fielder who hit .318 during a 12-year career.
Despite his stocky stature, he was an outstanding fielder, winning six Gold Gloves for fielding excellence. He was a 10-time All-Star and led the American League in hits four times, including 1989 when he led the league with a .339 batting average.
For all his baseball excellence, Puckett was equally remembered Monday as a caring individual and a friend to those whose lives he touched.
"When I think about Kirby, I think about the way he lived his life and the way he played the game," Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan said. "He enjoyed the game and he enjoyed people."
Ryan said Puckett loved kids.
"My boys thought he was special, because he would always go out of his way to talk to the kids and play with them and that makes him extremely special to them because a lot of players wouldn't do that," Ryan said.
Baseball's all-time strikeout king said Puckett was one of his toughest outs.
"He was a very aggressive-type player," Ryan said. "He always took the extra base. You knew to get him out you had to be on your best."
Cincinnati Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky knew Puckett well from the time the two spent together in the Twins organization.
"I had some interaction with him then because we shared an office," Krivsky said. "We had some fun and some laughs together. He'd answer my phone 'Wayne Krivsky's office.' He'd call me 'Kriv.'
"My wife got to talk with him several times and she couldn't believe she was talking to Kirby Puckett. They had a lot of laughs on the phone together. It's really sad to hear what's happened. I have some nice memories of those one or two springs when we were up there sharing that same office. We had a lot of laughs. He'd join us for lunch in Fort Myers[, Fla.]. Whenever it was Kirby's day to buy, it was a big day for lunch. He'd cater in these great meals -- three-course meals. You didn't need to eat dinner on days Kirby was buying. It was really neat and a lot of fun."
Puckett hit .357 in the 1987 World Series, and was a key player as the Twins won the World Series again in 1991. In 24 postsesason games, Puckett hit .309 with five homers and 15 RBIs.
"Everybody remembers the World Series wins," Krivsky said. "He always had a smile on his face. He was fun to be around. This has really got to hit the whole organization hard. There are not too many people he didn't touch over there. Everybody knew Kirby. It's got to be hitting his ex-teammates pretty hard. I'm sure the whole organization is going to be reeling from this for a while."
Puckett was on the minds of many of his former teammates and former Twins Monday.
Prior to Monday's game between the Oakland Athletics and Chicago Cubs, A's third base coach Ron Washington and Cubs outfielder Jacque Jones huddled together to talk about Puckett. Washington had spent all day Sunday at the Scottsdale hospital where Puckett was taken for surgery.
"He's a big part of the reason I play this game," said Jones, who came up in the Twins organization.
Cubs team president Andy MacPhail was the Twins GM from 1986-94.
"He was the best teammate I've ever been around," MacPhail said. "He made ballplayers better either by teasing them or getting on them. Nobody could dog it around him because he's running 4.2 [seconds] to first base in exhibition games that were going to get rained out in 20 minutes. As a player, he was a unique guy.
"When you win championships, you realize there are many, many indispensable people," MacPhail said. "We wouldn't have won without [Jack] Morris in '91, we wouldn't have won without [Greg] Gagne in '87 and '91, you wouldn't have won without [manager Tom] Kelly. There are a lot of those people. Nobody was more indispensable than Kirby. As a player, he was unique. There's never been anybody around him who had an impact on a baseball team the way he did."
Puckett was as exciting in the field as he was at bat. He had an electric personality and even casual fans love to see the Twins' sparkplug play the game.
"He wouldn't have been a big 'Moneyball' favorite because he used to say that the only guy who gets paid for walking is the mailman," MacPhail said. "That was him. Players respond more I think to their peers than anything else. With Kirby around, you always felt better after you've been around him. You could not be around him for long before he would have you smiling and laughing."
Wally Backman was a teammate of Puckett's in 1989 and is a good friend of Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire.
"He was the ultimate professional to me," Backman said. "Always working to get better. I used to say Tony Oliva had one job -- throw early [batting practice] to Kirby. He took it every day. It didn't seem good when they said he had surgery. But you didn't think he was going to die."
Mets outfielder Cliff Floyd was another who was saddened by the news.
"That's wrong, that's so wrong," Floyd said. "He always had that positive vibe going. Always had a smile. That's just horrible. We're in the clubhouse today and we see that 'critical condition, critical condition' on the bottom of the screen. 'Is it ever going to go back to stable?' Now he's gone. ... It's a shame, man. It's awful."
San Diego outfielder Mike Cameron was a friend of Puckett's.
"We were in the clubhouse today, talking about center fielders and Kirby's name came up," Cameron said. "He's one of those special dudes. I knew he had the stroke, and I was asking if you could go the hospital to see him. They said he was in intensive care, that it was just for family. ... Now he's gone. That's crazy. I didn't even know. The last time I saw him was when the Mets played in Minnesota. I went to dinner with him -- me, Kirby, Jacque Jones and Torii [Hunter]. I'm sure Torii's tore up. It's so sad."
Cameron remembered Puckett befriending him when he first came up to the Major Leagues, and Cameron wasn't even Puckett's teammate.
"He was one of those dudes, good people," Cameron said. "He always called me 'Young Stud.' I wasn't playing much when I came up with the White Sox. I'd just watch him. When I was with the White Sox, every time we'd go to Minnesota -- and we went a lot -- he'd take me and Frank Thomas to dinner. He had his own table in a restaurant. That city loved him, We all loved Kirby."
Chris Coste of the Phillies has been a Puckett fan since he can remember.
"Kirby was the first name on everyone's list," said Coste. "That smile and that magnetic personality. He was a huge role model for so many people in that area. He was a huge influence in the way that I hit."
Coste immediately broke into a Puckett batting stance -- pumping his left leg -- and said he stole that for his own style.
"People ask me how I hit that way, and I say, 'I grew up watching Kirby Puckett," said Coste, 33. "He was the kind of guy who had that Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire factor, where he would go to other stadiums and people from those cities would watch him play."
Coste's manager with the Phillies, Charlie Manuel, was another who was upset by the news.
"That kind of crushed me," Manuel said. "I didn't realize it was that bad. He was my favorite player. He was everything I thought a player should be."
Jane Forbes Clark, Chairman of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, also issued a statement.
"This is a sad and tragic day for the Baseball Hall of Fame," Clark said. "He was an incredibly productive player from the moment he joined the Twins until his last at-bat 12 years later. When you remember Kirby, you think of the joy and optimism he brought to the ballpark every day, and into the lives of everyone who knew him. He was, in every sense of the term, a Hall of Famer. We will miss Kirby greatly."
Donald M. Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, echoed those sentiments.
"We are very saddened by the sudden and unexpected passing of Kirby Puckett," Fehr said in a statement. "Kirby played the game with such passion and enthusiasm that he was beloved by players and fans throughout all of baseball. An icon in Minnesota, Kirby's contributions to the game and all who love it will stand as a lasting tribute to his life. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Puckett family, his friends and the entire Twins baseball family."
Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.