"Most importantly, Kirby loved us all"by Annie Baxter, Minnesota Public Radio
About 15,000 people filled the Metrodome on Sunday night to wish Kirby Puckett farewell. The former Minnesota Twins player died unexpectedly last week of a stroke. The Twins honored him with a public memorial, where former team players, coaches, and rivals paid tribute to what many called Puckett's "infectious laugh" and generous spirit.
Minneapolis, Minn. — The city of Minneapolis declared Sunday "Kirby Puckett Day," but the official gesture probably wasn't necessary. Fans took care to consecrate the day themselves, lining up outside the Metrodome hours in advance of the memorial service for Puckett. And some fans arrived with their eyes already moist. As Lynn Frank of Blaine made her way through the front gates with her husband, she choked back tears remembering Puckett.
"He was somebody that little ones could look up to, as they grew up. He was somebody that we could be proud of," she said.
Inside the Metrodome, Bo Clark said he had an extra motivation for feeling proud of Kirby Puckett: the two of them were neighbors back in Chicago's Robert Taylor housing project.
"Our families grew up together, right across the street from one another," Clark says. "He always gonna have Minnesota, but Chicago is always going to live in his heart, just like mine. But it's good to see all this support out here for him in the Twin Cities and to know he was always loved here."
Plenty of fans didn't get to know Kirby so personally. But the evening's nearly two-hour long tribute to him may well have left a feeling of an intimate connection to his life. As one speaker after the next mounted the podium in front of an enormous floral display of Puckett's number, 34, each praised Puckett's magnanimous personality. Andy MacPhail was the Twins general manager when Puckett led the team to two World Series championships. He described Puckett's exuberance as free flowing-- and unique.
"I will tell you that it is rare, extraordinarily rare when you come across a player whose generosity of spirit is such that he's willing to lavishly share that energy not just with his teammates but everybody around him, and that was Kirby Puckett. As soon as you'd get within earshot of the clubhouse, you'd hear that laugh, that contagious and infectious laugh, and by the time you got inside, he was probably needling some player that needed to exude a little greater effort, or he might be encouraging a young player that needed a confidence boost. But most of the time, it was just that good natured ribbing of his teammates," he said.
MacPhail also recalled Puckett's other claim to fame: a tireless work ethic. MacPhail said even at the top of his game, Puckett still busted his tail in spring training like a kid who was trying to make the team-- not someone who was already leading it. As MacPhail wrapped up his speech, his praise for Puckett became more anguished.
"OK, I've almost got it together. We're all struggling with our emotions," he said. "And I'm going to tell you the one I'll hold on to the longest, and that's gratitude. I'm grateful to have known him, grateful to have watched him play, and grateful for all his contributions."
Woven into the solemn appreciation of Puckett's talents were many moments of pure enjoyment-- when the speakers took playful aim at their friend. Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., a rival of Puckett, related a story about their first meeting. It was during Puckett's first batting practice in 1984. Ripken says Puckett approached him and his Baltimore Oriole teammate, Eddie Murray. And as Ripken recalls it, the effervescent Puckett gassed on and on and on.
"We learned very quickly that when Kirby gets on a roll, you don't interrupt him. He told us how proud he was to play with the Twins, how he wasn't going to let this opportunity slip away, and this conversation, pretty much a one way conversation took about 15 minutes. And when Kirby finally decided to walk away, he had deprived us of our necessary batting practice swings, and Eddie looked at me and said, "Is this guy for real?"
Kent Hrbek, another key player in the Twins World Series championships, also took a playful tone in remembering his longtime teammate. He kidded that his own nickname "Herbie" never seemed to carry as much currency as Kirby's name.
"I think the largest thing I remember, the biggest thing I remember about Kirby, was there was so many animals in this state named Kirby. And then if somebody else had a cow or a horse, they always named it Herbie," he said.
This admiration for Kirby Puckett-- and delight in his whimsical sounding name-- seemed to extend well beyond the borders of Minnesota. This was clear from a video snippet projected on screens across the metrodome. It showed Kirby Puckett making his entrance on Late Night with David Letterman
In the clip, Puckett's about to read a top 10 list for ways people mispronounce his funny sounding name. That draws lots of laughs, but what's really stunning is the extended applause with which he's greeted -- it lasts nearly 50 seconds.
"That's exciting! Very nice. That right there was a real thrill. That made you tingle a little bit," Letterman remarks.
Kirby Puckett's charisma and enthusiasm seemed to anchor the people around him. His former teammate Al Newman said Puckett's vitality -- and affection-- were grounding.
"He was the type of guy that when you walked into the clubhouse, you knew you were home. He was there to greet you, because he was always the first guy there," he says. "I loved him, I loved all our teammates out here, but most importantly, Kirby loved us."
That thought resonated more dramatically towards the end of the evening, when the lights went down, and a recording of Kirby's voice echoed across the stadium. It was one of those moments when the words of the dead suddenly take on an uncanny depth and relevance. There was Kirby Puckett, who would've turned 46 on Tuesday, imploring his fans to cherish life.
"Can you all just do me one favor?" he asks. "Don't take life for granted, because tomorrow isn't promised to any of us. Live, love, laugh, enjoy life. These were the best twelve years. Thank you all so much. I love you all very much."
Kirby Puckett, who was divorced, is survived by his children, Catherine and Kirby Jr. He was engaged to be married to Jodi Olson this summer.
- Morning Edition, 03/13/2006, 7:20 a.m.