Certain athletes in professional sports bring joy to fans and the game itself no matter what team they play for.
The enthusiasm, hustle, grit, and determination shown by the athlete sets them apart from others.
It is evident when watching such a player that their team would not be whole without them.
Anyone who saw Kirby Puckett play in the 1980s and early 90s witnessed such a player.
Diminutive in stature, Puckett played larger than life.
Today we celebrate the life and career of Hall of Fame center fielder Kirby Puckett, who would have turned 58 today. Spending his entire 12-year career with the @Twins, Puckett notched 2,304 hits and a career batting average of .318. Happy birthday Puck, we miss you. pic.twitter.com/rCFUdc0K9i
— MLBPAA (@MLBPAA) March 14, 2018
He gave his heart and soul to the Minnesota Twins and helped them win two championships.
Unfortunately, Puckett’s public life masked a troubling private life that would somewhat tarnish his name in later years.
Then, only a decade after his playing career ended, Puckett would pass away shortly after suffering from a stroke.
This is the story of Kirby Puckett.
Kirby Puckett was born on March 14, 1960, in Chicago, Illinois.
Unfortunately, given his environment, Puckett didn’t experience the most pleasant upbring.
Growing up, he resided at the Robert Taylor Homes housing project in Chicago.
Incidentally, it was the same housing projects that actor and former pro-wrestler, Mr. T, came from.
However, Puckett was a scrapper from an early age and applied himself in sports.
By the time he reached the end of his senior year at Calumet City High School in Chicago, Puckett was an All-American third baseman.
Regardless of his skills, he didn’t receive a single scholarship opportunity after graduation.
In an effort to help his family, Puckett then went to work installing carpeting in Ford Thunderbirds at a local Ford plant.
While working on the assembly line, Puckett didn’t let go of his baseball dreams.
In fact, after he suddenly lost his job at Ford, Puckett attended a major league tryout and was spotted by a coach from Bradley University.
The coach offered Puckett an opportunity to play for the Braves and he accepted.
Puckett Spotted by Accident
Once he arrived in Peoria, Puckett was switched to the outfield.
He was playing well for Bradley when his father suddenly passed away.
— Jeff (@MNTwinsZealot) August 14, 2015
After the season, Puckett transferred to Triton Junior College in River Grove, Illinois to be closer to his mom and siblings.
It was during his time at Triton that a random stranger would change his life forever.
Jim Rantz was an assistant farm director for the Minnesota Twins at the time.
Major League Baseball had just entered a 54-day strike in 1981 and that meant Rantz had time on his hands.
He took the opportunity to watch his son, Mike, play in a Central Illinois Collegiate League game.
As he watched the game that day, Rantz couldn’t help but notice a player for the opposing team.
Despite the intense heat that day, the player was everywhere and didn’t take a moment to rest.
“He went 3-for-4, hit a home run, threw someone out at the plate and stole a couple of bases. I didn’t know it at the time but he was leading the league in hitting, too.”
Rantz soon found out the player’s name, Kirby Puckett.
“What impressed me the most was the way he carried himself on and off the field,” Rantz said. “It was like 90 degrees or more and everyone else was dragging around. He was the first one on the field and the first one off. You could see he enjoyed playing, he was having fun.”
After the game, Rantz couldn’t get Puckett out of his head.
He knew that Puckett was a diamond in the rough.
Even better, because of where he played ball, and with the strike in progress, no other MLB team knew about Puckett.
Rantz went to the Twins and convinced the team that Puckett needed to be drafted and signed quickly before anyone else saw him play.
Since he was eligible for the January 1982 draft, the Twins selected Puckett with the third overall pick.
The Minnesota #Twins have the 3rd pick in the January draft and use it to select an outfielder from Triton College named Kirby Puckett.
That worked out well for all involved. pic.twitter.com/0rC3K52Cnr
— ⚾ J. Daniel ⚾ (@JDaniel2033) January 13, 2022
Minnesota offered Puckett $6,000.
However, while the team owned his rights, he didn’t sign a contract and played for Triton during the spring of ‘82.
All he did was lead Triton to the Junior College World Series while hitting .472 with 16 homers, 78 RBIs, and 42 stolen bases.
Puckett was also named the national juco player of the year.
After the spring, everyone in baseball knew who Puckett was.
Furthermore, he could have continued playing college ball and spurned the Twins.
Not wanting to lose out on such a gifted player, Minnesota upped their offer to $20,000.
Thankfully, Puckett accepted and signed on the dotted line. He was now a Minnesota Twin.
After signing his contract, Minnesota sent Puckett to their rookie league team in Elizabethton, Tennessee of the Appalachian League.
— National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum ⚾ (@baseballhall) January 14, 2021
During the 1982 season with Elizabethton, Puckett picked up where he left off at Triton.
That year, he hit .382, with 3 home runs, 35 RBI, and 43 steals in 65 games.
Puckett was also named Appalachian League Player of the Year by Baseball America.
The following season, the Twins promoted Puckett to the Single-A Visalia Oaks in the California League.
He continued rolling against Single-A pitchers to the tune of .318, nine home runs, 97 RBI, and 48 stolen bases in 138 games.
Puckett’s performance in 1982 and 1983 prompted Minnesota to have him skip Double-A ball and report to their Triple-A team, the Toledo Mud Hens.
After a solid first month with Toledo, Puckett was called up to the parent club for good in May of 1984.
For the next several years, Puckett proved that Rantz had found a gem.
Puckett’s first game as a major league player was May 8, 1984, against the California Angels.
He put on a hitting display and went 4 for 5 with a run scored against the first-place Angels.
— 80s Sports N Stuff (@80sSportsNStuff) May 8, 2018
That made Puckett just the sixth player in American League history to get four hits in their MLB debut.
Even more impressive, he hit .485 over the course of his first seven games.
In 128 games during the ‘84 season, Puckett hit .296 with 165 hits and led the team lead with five triples.
He would finish the season third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting.
In 1985, Puckett led the American League in at-bats with 691.
He also hit .288 with four home runs, 21 stolen bases, and finished fourth in the league in hits (199) and third in triples (13).
1986 saw Puckett start to bring the thunder in his at-bats.
Along with a .328 batting average, Puckett belted 31 homers, which led to the first of six Silver Slugger Awards.
He was also voted to his first MLB All-Star game while ranking seventh in doubles, sixth in home runs, fourth in extra-base hits, third in slugging percentage, and second in runs scored, hits, total bases, and at-bats.
Kirby Puckett shows why he won his first Gold Glove in 1986. pic.twitter.com/ykQmcRDPtX
— Jeff (@MNTwinsZealot) January 2, 2022
Puckett would also receive the first of six Gold Glove Awards that season.
1987 and the World Series
Before Puckett arrived, Minnesota had been mired in a postseason dry spell.
In fact, the last time the Twins reached the playoffs had been in 1970.
Their last World Series appearance had been in 1965 when they lost four games to three to the Dodgers.
In 1987, the Twins did just enough to end their season with an 85-77 record, good to first place in the AL West.
Puckett hit .332 during the season, including a rare 6 for 6 and two home run outing against Milwaukee in August.
He also led the AL in hits with 207 and bombed 28 homers.
During Minnesota’s 4-1 series victory over the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS, Puckett did not hit well.
However, he made up for it during the ‘87 World Series against the heavily favored St. Louis Cardinals.
Tim Laudner, Kirby Puckett and Roy Smalley after winning the 1987 World Series. Just magnificent. pic.twitter.com/NIrUH9KBHz
— RandBall (@RandBall) May 25, 2016
As Minnesota overcame a three games to two deficit to win the Series 4-3, Puckett hit .357.
He also had two walks, one double, one triple, three RBIs, and scored five runs.
In Game 6 alone, Puckett scored four runs, a World Series record.
1988-1990 and a Batting Title
For the next three seasons, the Twins failed to repeat their ‘87 magic, missing the postseason each year.
However, Puckett continued to be a consistent hitting machine.
In 1988, he hit .356, 24 home runs, 121 RBIs, and led the league in at-bats with 657 and hits with 234.
Puckett also led the league in total bases in ‘88 with 358.
His batting average that season was the highest for a right-handed batter in the AL since Joe DiMaggio hit .357 in 1941.
Puckett would finish third in the AL MVP voting for the second straight year.
In 1989, Puckett hit .339, winning the AL batting title.
He also finished first in the league in hits, second in doubles and second in singles.
During April of ‘89, Puckett had his 1,000th hit, making him just the fourth player in MLB history to do so in his first five years.
— Jeff (@MNTwinsZealot) December 31, 2021
After the season, Minnesota signed Puckett to an extension of three years and $9 million.
The following year, the Twins bottomed out with a 74-88 record and seventh place in the AL West.
Puckett’s batting average dipped to .298 with 164 hits, 12 home runs, and 80 RBIs.
Another Title in 1991
Only a year after finishing last in the division, Minnesota turned it around in 1991.
That season, the team went 95-67 and finished first in the division.
Puckett rebounded to hit .319, 89 RBIs, 195 hits, and 15 home runs.
During the ALCS against the Toronto Blue Jays, he hit .429 with four runs scored and two home runs.
That performance led the Twins to a resounding four games to one victory and Puckett an MVP Award for the series.
Minnesota advanced to the World Series to face the Atlanta Braves, another team that went worst-to-first in their division in one year.
The series went seven games and has long been ranked as one of the best World Series in MLB history.
No less than four of the seven games were decided on the final pitch and three games went into extra innings. Five of the games were decided by one run.
In Game 6, the Twins looked like they were going to lose everything.
They were down three games to two when Puckett saved the day.
Plays like this are what made Kirby Puckett special. pic.twitter.com/uYMLq5n9BL
— MLB Vault (@MLBVault) March 14, 2021
At one point, Atlanta’s Ron Gant looked like he ripped an extra-base hit in the third inning.
However, Puckett raced to the wall and caught the ball before it could do some damage.
The tight game went into extra innings.
In the bottom of the 11th, Puckett took a pitch and sent it over the wall for the game-winner.
Announcer Jack Buck then told the millions of viewers at home, “And We’ll See You Tomorrow Night!”
Those that did witnessed Twins pitcher Jack Morris control the game with a solid 10 innings and the Twins won their second World Series 1-0.
Minnesota would reach 90 wins in 1992, but finish in second place in the division, missing the postseason.
Puckett continued his hitting assault with an MLB best 210 hits and 313 total bases.
He also had a .329 batting average, 110 RBIs, and 19 homers.
Puckett became the 15th player in MLB history to have 200 hits in five or more seasons.
In 1993, he hit .296 with 184 hits, 89 RBIs, and 22 homers.
The following year, Puckett began the season with a 15 game hitting streak.
He also had a hit in 24 of the Twins’ first 25 games.
In the fourth game of the year, Puckett reached 2,000 hits for his career.
— Jeff (@MNTwinsZealot) December 31, 2021
That season, he would win his first RBI title with 112.
It would have been much more, but the ‘94 season ended due to the player’s strike.
Puckett would bat over .300 (.314) for the second consecutive year in 1995.
He also crushed over 20 home runs (23) for the third consecutive year.
In his final at-bat of the season, Puckett’s jaw was broken on a fastball by the Indians’ Dennis Martinez.
Puckett’s Career Ends Unexpectedly
Puckett returned for his 13th big league season in 1996 and looked like he would have another strong year.
Throughout Spring Training, he crushed opposing pitchers with a .344 batting average.
Then, on the final day of training camp, Puckett woke up and couldn’t see out of his right eye.
He was examined and found to have glaucoma.
He was then placed immediately on the disabled list for the first time in his career.
Four attempts at surgery did nothing to alleviate his condition and on July 12, 1996, Puckett announced his retirement.
July 12, 1996: 36-year-old #MNTwins outfielder Kirby Puckett officially announces his retirement.
He appeared poised for a big season in 1996, hitting .344 in spring training when he woke up on the final day of camp unable to see out of his right eye. ⇨ https://t.co/BOFgHwNi5k pic.twitter.com/cqcCBorYtG
— The Twins Almanac (@TwinsAlmanac) July 12, 2020
In November, the Twins would name their former star the executive vice president of baseball.
With his unexpected retirement, Puckett’s .318 career average was the highest for a right-handed batter since Joe DiMaggio.
He still leads the organization in hits with 2,304 and doubles with 414.
In his 12-year career, Puckett had 1,085 total RBIs, 3,453 total bases, and 207 home runs.
He was a ten-time All-Star, six-time Gold Glove winner, six-time Silver Slugger winner, two-time World Series winner, AL batting champion, and AL RBI champion.
Puckett’s number 34 jersey would be retired by Minnesota and he would be placed in the Twins Hall of Fame.
On January 16, 2001, Puckett was inducted into the Pro Baseball Hall of Fame.
“He never had a bad day,” said fellow Hall of Famer Frank Thomas. “I don’t care how bad things were going on or off the field, Kirby found a way to make you laugh. He was a breath of fresh air in this game.”
Allegations Tarnish Puckett’s Legacy
On the outside, Kirby Puckett’s life to this point looked perfect.
He was a beloved player, a two-time World Series champ, and a recent inductee into the Hall of Fame.
However, there was a different side to Puckett that had remained hidden. That hidden life didn’t stay that way for long.
In March 2002, news surfaced that an order of protection was filed by a woman against Puckett’s wife, Tonya.
The order was in response to Tonya’s threat against the woman for an affair with Puckett.
Only weeks later, a second woman came forward with an order of protection against Puckett himself.
She alleged that Puckett had assaulted her during their 18-year affair.
Then, in September 2002, Puckett was in the news again when he was charged with fifth-degree assault, fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct, and false imprisonment after a woman alleged he groped her in a restaurant bathroom.
@gneitzel16 Kirby Puckett. HOF career, incredible personality, then downfall with injury and domestic abuse allegations. I'd cry for sure.
— Brad Simon (@bksim0n) October 16, 2015
He would later be found not guilty of the charges.
After 15 years of marriage, Kirby and Tonya Puckett divorced in December 2002.
Unfortunately, that would not be the end of Puckett’s troubles.
In March 2003, George Dohrmann of Sports Illustrated wrote a story that detailed more indiscretions at the hands of Puckett.
In the article, Dohrmann stated that Puckett had several affairs with women.
Furthermore, a Twins employee had received a financial settlement with Puckett after he had sexually harassed her.
The article further stated that Tonya Puckett had called police in December 2001 after Puckett had threatened to kill her.
Not long after the release of the Sports Illustrated article, Puckett moved to Scottsdale, Arizona with his fiancee and her son to get a fresh start.
Over the next couple of years, friends that visited Puckett noted that he had let himself go.
Most said that he had gained significant weight, well north of 300 pounds.
Then, on the morning of March 5, 2006, Puckett suffered a serious stroke.
He had emergency surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain, but it did not work.
Upon hearing the news, several of Puckett’s former Twins teammates flew to Arizona to see him.
Puckett died the following day on May 6, 2006. He was only 45 years old.
The following week, a public ceremony was held at the Metrodome in Minnesota where more than 15,000 people attended to pay their respects.
After his passing, friends and former teammates shared their grief.
“It’s tough to take,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan said from the team’s spring training camp in Fort Myers, Fla. “He had some faults, we knew that, but when all was said and done he would treat you as well as he would anyone else. No matter who you were.”
“He was revered throughout the country and will be remembered wherever the game is played,” commissioner Bud Selig said. “Kirby was taken from us much too soon — and too quickly.”
On April 12, 2010, a statue of Puckett was placed in the plaza at the Twins’ new home in Target Field in Minneapolis.
— Mike Berardino (@MikeBerardino) July 15, 2014
The statue shows Puckett pumping his fist, as he did after hitting the game-winning home run in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series.