My weekend trip prevented me from acknowledging that Kirby Puckett would have turned 50 years old on Sunday. The late Minnesota Twins great died from complications due to a stroke a few years ago, but as Dan Simmons of the Chicago Tribune reminds us, he remains an unforgettable figure to this day.
A co-worker of mine was interviewed for the story. None of his direct quotes were used, but there’s a line that reads, "In northern Minnesota, there was amazement that he’d trek up to their tundra during the winter to meet fans."
My co-worker told Simmons something to that effect because of the lasting effect that Puckett had on myself. That line is in reference to the only time in my life that I met Puckett. He took part in the Twins’ annual Winter Caravan in January of 1988, and at the time I was a first-grader living in Thief River Falls.
Now keep in mind, this is the offseason immediately after the Twins had won their first World Series. And here’s a star of Puckett’s stature, joined by Gary Gaetti in this small northwestern Minnesota town of no more than 8,000 residents at the time.
With my parents at my side, I walked into TRF’s old Armory building where the Caravan was held, and Puckett is in the middle of the building, shaking hands with anyone who would shake his hand, which of course was everyone. He was wearing that pilot’s capor aviator’s cap or whatever you call it, which I assume is the same one that he wore during the victory parade after the World Series victory. Maybe he’s like Superman or Batman where he had an entire closet of those pilot’s hats.
With every other athlete I’ve seen at a Caravan, you can tell it’s part of the job. They might be enjoying themselves, but you know that taking part in the Caravan is just part of being a Twins ballplayer, at least for the run-of-the-mill players these days. Heck, you’d never see any of today’s star Twins going out into the hinterlands of Minnesota on the Caravan anyway. Even if they do take part, they don’t venture too far from the Twin Cities.
But as for Puckett? He genuinely seemed to be enjoying himself that afternoon in TRF. And why not? He was on top of the world at that time, a World Series star beloved by an entire state of baseball fans. I’ll never forget shaking his hand, his face sporting a grin from ear to ear. No doubt I was carrying the same expression on my face.
He autographed a 1987 Topps baseball card (you know, the wood-bordered edition), which I still have and cherish. I keep the card in a safe, but occasionally I’ll break it out just to assure myself it’s still there. That card isn’t the most valuable in my collection, but it’s definitely my favorite.
I know a lot of undesireable things came to light after Puckett’s retirement from the Twins. I’m sure a lot of fans soured on him because of it, and I understand.
But whenever I think about Puckett, I think back to that day in TRF. And that’s why, decades from now when he’s been long gone, I’ll never forget Kirby.