Wednesday, January 17, 2001

Abrupt end preserved Puckett's stature

        If it weren't for glaucoma, Kirby Puckett would not be headed to the Baseball Hall of Fame just yet.

        He'd still be playing. He'd still be stepping up to the plate with that fire-hydrant physique and lashing those lethal line drives into the gap. He'd be leaping at the wall for another improbable catch and then running back to the dugout with a smile wide enough to land cargo planes.

        He'd be what he might have been had his vision allowed him to keep both of his eyes on the ball. He'd still be news instead of nostalgia.

        If there was a lesson in Tuesday's Hall of Fame balloting, however, it was that it's sometimes better to retire prematurely than after a prolonged decline. One of
the reasons Puckett had his card punched for Cooperstown on the first try — joining the semi-automatic Dave Winfield — was none of the voters can remember him slipping.

Just short of spectacular
               Puckett retired abruptly after 12 scintillating seasons with the Minnesota Twins because of irreversible damage to his right retina. Thus he never had the chance to lose a step in the outfield or a smidgen of bat speed. He is remembered at his best, like Buddy Holly or James Dean, spared the indignity of growing old in the public eye.

        Yet Puckett, on his best day, was not quite as good as the prime of Dave Parker or the finest moments of Dale Murphy. His career numbers are virtually identical to those of Don Mattingly, but Mattingly's peak seasons were plainly superior. Mattingly and Parker both were named their league's most valuable player — an award Puckett never won — and Murphy did it twice.

        Strange, then, that Puckett received more votes Tuesday than Mattingly, Murphy and Parker combined. His name was checked off on 423 of the 515 ballots cast, compared to Mattingly's 145 votes, Murphy's 93 and Parker's 84. Though Puckett was the only one of the four selected on my ballot, his landslide is still startling relative to the statistics.

Some stay too long
               When Murphy had played 12 full seasons in the major leagues, he had 348 home runs and a .296 career batting average. His mistake was he continued to play after his skills started to recede. Instead of padding his numbers, he wound up diminishing them with a series of unseemly .220 seasons.

        The best of Parker included two batting titles, two slugging titles, an RBI crown and a powerful clubhouse presence. The worst of Parker was drug dependency and indifference — a couple of seasons in the early 1980s when he cheated his talent and compromised his reputation.

        Mattingly retired with a .307 batting average, but it had been .331 as late as 1987. Persistent back problems robbed him of his power and reduced the eminent slugger to a noble grind — slapping singles to the opposite field because he no longer could drive the ball with much authority. The second half of Mattingly's career was a pale shadow of the first, and the only part younger voters may recall.

        The Hall of Fame ballot stipulates that candidates must complete 10 seasons in the major leagues, but voters must decide for themselves how to weigh concentrated greatness versus consistency. It is, annually, a tough call.

        Were it not for permanent eye problems, Kirby Puckett probably would have reached 3,000 career hits. His consolation is that baseball immortality is also irreversible.


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