Monday, August 06, 2001

Puckett's induction ode to joy

        COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Waste no pity on Kirby Puckett. Save your tears for real trouble. His baseball career ended prematurely, but not tragically. Glaucoma limits his vision, but not his laughter. His tale of woe is as short as his stature; his sense of wonder as wide as his smile.

        “I could probably hit .280 — .290 with one eye,” Puckett said Sunday. “But if I can't hit .300, I don't want no part of it.”

        The Minnesota Twins' ebullient outfielder was inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame Sunday, and he went to the podium at peace.

        Dave Winfield droned on as if delivering an address drafted by pollsters. Bill Mazeroski abandoned his 12-page speech in the opening para
graphs because he couldn't stop blubbering. But Puckett plowed through his prepared text as if double-parked, “just like I did in the batter's box.”

Chi-town to Cooperstown

        He has spent his life smelling the roses and rarely pauses to reflect on the thorns. His mood is mirth. His message is pretty darn inspiring.

        “You can be whatever you want to be if you believe in yourself and work hard,” Puckett said. “Because anything — and I'm telling you anything — is possible.”

        Puckett is the product of Chicago's meanest streets, a sawed-off, barrel-bodied striver whose career belies his bleak background and cartoon contours. He grew up with a bat on his shoulder and a purpose in his mind, evading the ghetto gangs and drug dealers of infamous Cabrini Green, “the place where hope died,” resolved to make his mark as a ballplayer.

        “I didn't want to be a product of my environment,” he said. “I walked right past the gang-bangers and the drug dealers. I walked right by with my bat and my glove over my shoulder and my books in the other hand. They said, "Why don't you hang out with us and drink wine?' I said, "That's not my calling. My calling is to play baseball.'”

Value beyond numbers

        When he was finished shattering windows in the projects, Puckett became the dynamic center fielder on two Twins championship teams. The 10-time All-Star's signature performance was Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, when his leaping catch and 11th-inning home run meant Minnesota's survival. Yet the wonder of Puckett was not his skill or his statistics, but his spirit. Like another Minnesota icon — Mary Richards — he could turn the world on with his smile.

        If the mark he made might have been larger — had glaucoma not “taken the bat out of my hands ” — Puckett isn't inclined to quibble.

        He retired abruptly at 35, fresh off a season in which he hit .314 with 23 home runs. Yet he packed enough production into his abbreviated career to earn election to Cooperstown on the first ballot. Fate preserved the memory of Puckett's peak and spared him the frustration of a slow decline. The “infectious exuberance” cited on his Hall plaque remains undiminished.

        “There's nothing bad for Kirby Puckett to be mad about,” he said. “I've said it before and I'll say it again: It may be cloudy in my right eye, but the sun is shining very brightly in my left eye.”

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Complete Hall of Fame coverage from Associated Press

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