The major league baseball playoffs began this week, but one player who animated previous post-seasons was gone and would not return. His name is so well-known that when a four-year-old boy saw a large Minnesota Twins logo on a glass case in a Minneapolis memorabilia shop, he wiggled out of his father's grasp so he could touch the sign and announce with authority to all who could hear: "Kirby Puckett."
In his 13-year career with the Twins, Kirby won the hearts of children and adults alike. He hit .318 for his career, made the All-Star lineup 10 years in a row, and won six Gold Gloves for defensive play in center field. He twice led his team to World Series championships.
But what really made Kirby stand out was the character he displayed.
Kirby was generous: giving away millions in free tickets, scholarships, medical treatment, and community service.
He worked hard every day: showing up early year after year, training hard, not just depending on enormous talent and ego to play the game.
He was steady: playing hard every game, whether the Twins were first or last.
He was one of the few professional athletes to turn down a bigger and better contract in order to stay with his team and keep his family from having to move.
This year there was bad news. Glaucoma had irreversibly damaged Kirby's right eye. He could no longer see well enough to play. Fans still hoped that Kirby could come out of the dugout and do what he's always done for us. That dream died.
On Saturday, September 9, Twins fans paid tribute to Kirby Puckett at the Metrodome. Thousands who could not get in stood outside on the plaza. Inside, 51,000 fans, friends, and hard-boiled journalists wept as he entered the field to say good-bye for the last time. He stood there giving us his dazzling trademark smile and waving--this chunky, lumpy 5-foot-8 unlikely looking hero. He thanked us and told us not to worry, life was not over.
The fame of many athletes ends with the statistics, but not Kirby's. Today, there are many millionaire athletes who have become famous to our children not just for their prowess but for the vile lives they lead. But on September 9, fans told each other stories about the quality of Kirby's character.
Here's one: Last season Cleveland pitcher Dennis Martinez shattered the left side of Kirby's face with a fast ball. Martinez was inconsolable, certain he had lost a friend. But as soon as Kirby was able, he called Mr. Martinez "my good friend" and blamed himself for getting in the way.
And another: Two years ago in spring training, after three hours of drills, he signed about 200 autographs. When one child deceitfully wanting an extra special signature on a baseball asked, "Mr. Puckett, could you write on it, 'opening night,'" Kirby laughed and said, "I don't know if I'll be living opening night . . . kid, you can go any time." Stretched out in the Twins clubhouse later, Kirby spoke seriously: "You don't know how long God wants you here, so you should always give all thanks to him."
Kirby has been a friend not only to his family, his teammates, and his colleagues; most of all he's been a friend to children. He left this final word for them: "I want to tell all the little kids who prayed for me that just because I can't see out of my right eye doesn't mean God doesn't answer prayers--He answers prayers. I still can see with my left eye. I can still see my beautiful wife and kids. I'm still alive."
As Kirby left the Metrodome, slowly driving around the field, his wife Tonya beside him, a beaming little kid leaned over the edge of the left field wall and jiggled a jersey with number 34. Kirby saluted him and as he disappeared from view so did the kid's smile. Then he laid his head on the top of the ledge and began to cry.
We'll miss Kirby's play but we'll remember him as the man of the Proverb: He who loves a pure heart and whose speech is gracious will have the king for his friend (Prov. 22:11.) We hope the king isn't just Carl Pohlad, tough old owner of the Twins, who bent to kiss Kirby's shaved head and tell him he loved him; but that it is the God who made him and who let this man play the game so well.