Kirby Puckett never lost sight of what mattered most, and that made him a roly-poly advertisement for baseball at its best.
He was effervescent, the most enthusiastic star player of his generation. Fans gravitated to him, and so did teammates.
When he retired in 1996 after glaucoma caused 20/400 vision in his right eye, he said people shouldn’t fret over him.
First his career was cut short, and now his life, too.
He died Monday at age 45, one day after a stroke, the second-youngest person to die already a member of the Hall of Fame. People cried when Lou Gehrig died in 1941, and now it will be hard for those Puckett touched not to shed tears.
“He was the best teammate I’ve ever been around,” Chicago Cubs president Andy MacPhail said Monday night.
MacPhail was general manager of the Minnesota Twins when Puckett led the team to World Series titles in 1987 and 1991. He saw not only what Puckett did on the field, but how his magnetic personality boosted teammates.
“The players around him couldn’t dog it because he’s running out groundouts in spring training games,” MacPhail remembered. “It was impossible for people to give half an effort when the best player on the team was going full bore at all times.”
This was before the era when players routinely had personal trainers and valets. Puckett paid a kid to throw an hour of batting practice to him each day, money out of his own pocket. Nearly every day.
“Beats sitting around the house,” he said. “You can only do this for so long, so you better enjoy every minute you can.”
“I wanted to play baseball ever since I was 5 years old,” he said in his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2001. “And I want you to remember the guiding principles of my life: You can be what you want to be if you believe in yourself and you work hard, because anything, and I’m telling you anything, is possible.
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