Archive for Monday, March 13, 2006

Fans, peers remember Puckett

15,000 attend two-hour ceremony in Metrodome

March 13, 2006

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— Kirby Puckett was known for his eagerness, enthusiasm and exceptional ability to play baseball, as well as a perpetual smile and a passion for other people.

Where he might have made his biggest mark in the game was with his effort.

As Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire reminded the crowd gathered at the Metrodome for Sunday night's two-hour remembrance of Puckett, the Hall of Famer wasn't one to cut corners - never neglecting where he came from and always appreciating his success.

"As long as I'm running this baseball team, we will play this game with respect," said Gardenhire, who coached third base for Minnesota during the last half of Puckett's 12-year career.

"We will run every ball out, and we will give you a show every time we come out," Gardenhire added. "Because that's what Kirby would have wanted us to do."

About 15,000 fans joined Puckett's family, friends and dozens of Twins players, coaches and personnel, both current and former, to celebrate what Puckett meant to them.

"Make sure you smile and laugh tonight because that's what Kirby would want, and that's why we loved him," said Twins radio announcer John Gordon, the master of ceremonies, in his introductory remarks.

Gardenhire and a handful of players, including Torii Hunter, Brad Radke and Joe Mauer, skipped a day of spring training to attend. Kent Hrbek, Harmon Killebrew and Dave Winfield were among the former players who took seats around the infield as a local gospel choir began the event by singing the old hymn "I'll Fly Away." Fans, many toting Homer Hankies and Puckett memorabilia, clapped rhythmically.

A private memorial service was held earlier in the suburb of Wayzata for Puckett's family and friends before gates opened at the place where Puckett roamed center field on two World Series winners, in 1987 and 1991. Fans lined up outside the stadium several hours before the public service began.

Kevin Grubb, of Blaine, brought his 7-year-old daughter, Paige, who of course never saw Puckett play.

"I wanted her to see what it was like," Grubb said. "See the people and the fans, just to let her know how important he was to the community."

Clearly, Puckett - who died Monday at age 45 after suffering a stroke - meant a lot.

Hrbek, the hometown boy who played first base on both of Minnesota's championship teams and batted right behind Puckett, was cheered louder than any of the other speakers.

"I'm not going to remember the hits and the hustle and the catches that Kirby made," Hrbek said. "I'm going to remember the smile. I'm going to remember the laughter. I'm going to remember the clubhouse pranks and just having a good ol' time with Puck."

But this was more than simply the mourning of a lost baseball player, who was only able to become so widely adored because of the high profile sports have in society. He was a man who, once his playing days were done, revealed a darker side - problems with women and weight.

No, it wasn't about that. For friends, family and fans, it was a time for reflection on his warmth, his sincerity, his awareness and his caring nature.

"You could be in the worst mood ever and all you had to do was hear Kirby laugh, or see his smile, and he could bring you back. Even when you were mad at an umpire," said Cal Ripken, who played against Puckett's Twins teams throughout the 1980s and 1990s with Baltimore.

"He's a real person. He was genuine. He was considerate. He was everything a friend should be," Ripken said.

A recording of late public address announcer Bob Casey's famous introduction - "Kir-beeeee Puck-ett!" - was played over the speakers as the conclusion arrived. Then came Jack Buck's famous closing call in Game 6 of the '91 Series that Puckett ended with an 11th-inning home run.

That was followed by a clip from his Hall of Fame induction speech, in 2001.

"Can you all just do me one favor?" Puckett told the audience that summer day. "Don't take life for granted, because tomorrow isn't promised to any one of us."

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