"It doesn’t matter what your height is, it’s what’s in your heart.”
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know it’s a rare day that I write off-topic. But today I feel compelled to shift gears slightly. I hope you’ll forgive me this digression.
Yesterday one of my heroes died.
If you’re from Minnesota, or if you’re a baseball fan then you know who I’m talking about. Yesterday, Kirby Puckett died after a suffering from a massive stroke the day before.
As a life-long Minnesotan, it’s easy to forget that Kirby Puckett belonged not just to us (in Minnesota). He belonged to everyone who enjoyed baseball. Kirby was a living sports legend, all over North America (maybe all over the world). Because he wore the Twins uniform, we forget what an impact he made on the world of baseball outside our frozen borders.
If the number of news stories about his death is any measure of his impact, then Kirby definitely made an impact. A huge impact.
Since his death last night, he has been the top story on Google News Sports. As I write this, the number of stories is 1669 and keeps ticking up like a clock. The next closest item has 530 related stories.
But Kirby Puckett was much more than numbers. Even his entry into the hall of fame was based on his personality, his values, his actions both on and off the field.
Ken Rosenthal, who voted for Kirby in the Hall of Fame, says this:
"Would a player with Puckett’s career stats but a less engaging personality received the same support? Maybe not. But Puckett is a baseball immortal not just for his playing ability, but for the vibe he created in the park, for what he meant to his teams."
Keep in mind, I am not a baseball fan. I like the game. But I’m not a raving fan who follows every aspect of the sport. To me it’s just one of many forms of entertainment. Nothing special.
But, I was (and I always will be) a Kirby Puckett fan. That’s easy. Because Kirby was special.
How can you not like a guy who treated everyone well? A guy who always hustled even when it didn’t seem to matter?
Andy MacPhail points out that Kirby ran first base in 4.2 seconds in exhibition games. Tom Kelly reminds us that Kirby ran out all the balls and he always caught with both hands. No wonder fans loved him!
I always admired Kirby’s dedication to hitting.
A reporter once asked him why he hit so well. He replied that he swung the bat as often as possible. He practiced and practiced and practiced. He never let up. As a result he was one of the best at what he did.
But that doesn’t even come close to painting the full picture of Kirby Puckett.
He was a leader in every sense of the word. The stories about his clubhouse presence are the stuff of baseball legend.
“Stats can’t measure his impact – best clubhouse presence I have ever seen, the superstar who never acted the part and embraced everyone from bat boys to the manager and coaches.”
(Ted Robinson, Twins TV announcer who worked around Kirby for six of his prime seasons. )
“He’s a big reason why I play the game the way I do. He taught us to play the game like it’s your last.
(Jacque Jones, former Twins teammate)
"He took care of his teammates and showed us how to be leaders. He used to say, ‘The way I’m treating you right now, you make sure you pass the torch.’ "
(LaTroy Hawkins, former Twins teammate)
As fans, we didn’t necessarily see that. But we saw the results of it. And I think we felt it. People like Kirby exude an energy that is almost tangible.
His presence was so strong that it affected more than just his teammates. To me the biggest compliment a professional athlete can get is praise from their opponents. In this regard, Kirby was the king.
"..you never want to lose – but you didn’t mind it being (to) Kirby Puckett."
(John Smoltz , pitcher for Atlanta Braves)
Even the fans of other teams loved Kirby. Yesterday, after the news of his death become public, KARE-11 News reported:
"Down at Kirby Puckett Place, the Metrodome switchboard fielded dozens of Puckett-related phone calls and e-mails. Twins receptionist Sharron Shannon said many came from outside the state. ‘They’ll say well I’m a Yankees fans, or I’m an A’s fan but I really loved watching Kirby. He’s one of my favorite players.’ "
Kirby was famous for his enthusiasm, his smile, his great attitude. Even the Baseball Hall of Fame recognized it. His plaque in Cooperstown starts with these words:
"A proven team leader with an ever-present smile and infectious exuberance…"
Like other great people, Kirby Puckett taught us a lot of valuable lessons.
He taught us to enjoy what we do and do what we enjoy. He taught us to be grateful for and make the most of whatever we have. He taught us to give everything we have, all of the time. Never give up. Never say never.
Kirby also taught us that nobody is perfect. For all his admirable qualities he had his failings.
He showed us how to be graceful and gracious even in difficult times. His retirement from the job he loved was not on his terms. It was not what he wanted.
But he accepted it with all the grace and dignity you could ask for. At his retirement press conference he reminded the world that “tomorrow’s never promised.”
Not even for heroes like Kirby Puckett.
So, I’ll take this one day and not write about business. Because today I find it more important to remember a hero and the lessons he taught us.
I’m glad Kirby Puckett chose Minnesota as his home and the Twins as his team.
But I’m even more glad he chose to live his life the way he did. He never wrote a book. He didn’t give speeches or teach classes. But Kirby Puckett was one of the best teachers I’ve ever seen. His lessons are timeless.
Thanks for being a teacher, an entertainer and an inspiration for so many people. Thanks for being you.
You really did touch us all.
"Touch ’em all, Kirby Puckett! Touch ’em all!”
(John Gordon, WCCO announcer )