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Aaron D. Puckett (March 14, 1960 – March 6, 2006) was a center fielder in Major League Baseball who played his entire major-league career with the Minnesota Twins from 1984 to 1995. He is the Twins franchise's all-time leader (1961-present) in career hits, runs, doubles and total bases. His .318 career batting average was the highest by any right-handed American League batter in the second half of the 20th century.

Puckett was the fourth baseball player during the 20th century to record 1,000 hits in his first five full calendar years in Major League Baseball, and one of only two to record 2,000 hits during his first ten full calendar years. After being forced to retire at age 35 due to loss of vision in one eye from glaucoma, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Famemarker in 2001 in his first year of eligibility.

In 2006, Puckett suffered a stroke at his home in Arizonamarker. He died the next day. At the age of 45, Puckett became the second youngest retired player in the Baseball Hall of Famemarker to die, Lou Gehrig being the youngest (37).

Early life

Puckett was born in Chicago, Illinoismarker in the Chicago housing projects. He was the youngest of nine children. Puckett attended Calumet High School, and won High School All American Honors in baseball. He briefly attended Bradley Universitymarker before transferring to Triton College in River Grove, Illinoismarker. Puckett was subsequently drafted by the Twins in the first round of the 1982 baseball draft.

Major League Baseball career

Early career: 1984–1986

Kirby Puckett's first year in Major League Baseball was 1984. He went 4 for 5 in his first game against the California Angels. That year, Puckett hit .296. Puckett was fourth in singles in the American League. In 1985, Puckett hit .288. His numbers were fourth in the league for hits, first in at bats, and third for triples.

In 1986, Puckett began to emerge as an outstanding player. With an average of .328, Puckett was elected to his first all-star game. He ended third in slugging percentage, second in runs scored, second in hits, sixth in home runs, and fourth in extra base hits. Kirby also improved his defensive skills, earning his first Gold Glove Award.

Prime of career: 1987–1990

In 1987, Puckett led the Twins to the World Series. The Twins second since relocating to Minnesota (in 1965, the Twins lost the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers) came after Puckett batted .332 with 28 home runs and 99 RBI in the regular season. His performance was even more impressive in the seven-game Series upset over the St. Louis Cardinals, batting .357.

During that championship year, Puckett put on arguably his best performance on August 30 in Milwaukeemarker against the Brewers, when he went 6-for-6 with two home runs, one off Juan Nieves in the third and the other off closer Dan Plesac in the ninth.

Statistically speaking, Puckett had his best year in 1988, hitting .356 with 24 home runs and 121 RBI, to finish third in the MVP balloting for the second straight season. The Twins won 91 games, six more than in their championship season the year before, but finished second to the Oakland Athletics in the American League West.

Kirby Puckett won the AL batting title in 1989 with a mark of .339, while also finishing fifth in at bats, second in doubles, first in hits, and second in singles. In April 1989, he earned his 1,000th hit, the fourth player in recorded baseball to do so in his first five seasons. He continued to play well in 1990, finishing with a .298 batting average, but the Twins slipped all the way down to last place in the AL West.

Later career: 1991–1995

In 1991, the Twins got back on the winning track and Puckett led the way by batting .319, eighth in the league. Minnesota surged past Oakland midseason and captured the division title, then upset the favored Toronto Blue Jays in five games in the American League Championship Series. Puckett batted .429 with two home runs and six RBI in the playoffs to win MVP honors.

The subsequent 1991 World Series was ranked by ESPN to be the best ever played, with four games decided in the final at-bat and three games going into extra innings. Both the Twins and their opponent, the Atlanta Braves, had finished last in their respective divisions in the year before winning their league pennant, something that had never been done before.

Going into Game 6, the Twins trailed three games to two and had to win to stay alive. Puckett gave the Twins an early lead by scoring Chuck Knoblauch with a triple. Puckett also made a leaping catch on the Plexiglas wall to rob Ron Gant of an extra-base hit in the third inning. The game went into extra innings, and in the first at-bat of the bottom of the 11th, Puckett hit a dramatic game-winning home run on a 2-1 count off Charlie Leibrandt to keep his team alive. This dramatic game has been widely remembered as the high point in Puckett's career. The images of Puckett rounding the bases, arms raised in triumph (often punctuated by CBS television broadcaster Jack Buck saying "And we'll see you tomorrow night!"), are always included in video highlights of Puckett's career. In the years to come, and especially after Puckett's death, Game 6 came to symbolize his entire career as an excellent ballplayer who always came through for the Twins when they needed it the most. The Twins went on to win game seven, winning the World Series.

The Twins did not make the postseason another time during Puckett's career, but Puckett himself refused to follow suit. In 1994, Puckett was switched to right field, but still won his first league RBI title by driving in 112 runs. He was having another brilliant season in 1995 before having his jaw broken by a Dennis Martínez fastball on September 28.

Retirement and accolades

On March 28, 1996, Puckett woke up without vision in his right eye. He was diagnosed with glaucoma, and was placed on the disabled list for the first time in his professional career. Several surgeries over the next few months could not restore vision in the eye; Puckett never played professional baseball again. On July 12, Puckett announced his retirement from baseball at age 35. Puckett moved to Scottsdale, Arizonamarker, in the winter of 2003.

The Twins retired Puckett's number 34 in 1997. In 2001, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Famemarker in his first year of eligibility. In 1999, he ranked Number 86 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players.

Puckett had been admired throughout his career and for some years after. His unquestionable baseball prowess, outgoing personality, charity work, community involvement, and nice-guy attitude earned him the respect and admiration of fans across the country. In 1993, he received the Branch Rickey Award for his community service work.

Controversy

Puckett became the subject of controversy in the years before his death. He was arrested and charged with groping a woman in a restroom at Redstone American Grill in Eden Prairie, Minnesotamarker, on September 5, 2002. A witness testified that he saw Puckett drag a woman into the bathroom at the restaurant, and that she appeared terrified when she came out moments later. The alleged victim claims Puckett squeezed her breast hard enough to cause a bruise. Puckett was charged with false imprisonment, a felony; fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct, a gross misdemeanor; and fifth-degree assault, a misdemeanor. Puckett was acquitted.

In the March 17, 2003 edition of Sports Illustrated, columnist Frank Deford wrote an article entitled "The Rise and Fall of Kirby Puckett", that documented Puckett's alleged indiscretions and attempted to contrast his private image with the much-revered public image he maintained before his arrest. One of Puckett's companions of many years commented once that when Puckett could not play baseball anymore, "He started to become full of himself and very abusive." His weight ballooned to more than 350 pounds and he was alleged to have begun to perform lewd acts in public, such as urinating in the parking lot of a shopping center in plain view of other people.

Death

On the morning of March 5, 2006, Kirby Puckett suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke at his home in Scottsdale, Arizonamarker. He underwent emergency surgery that day to relieve pressure on his brain; the surgery failed, and his former teammates and coaches were notified the following morning. Many, including 1991 teammates Shane Mack and Kent Hrbek, flew to Phoenix to be at his bedside during his final hours along with Kirby's ex-wife Tonya Puckett and two children Kirby Jr. and Catherine. His autopsy report, released after the end of the 2006 season, revealed the cause of his stroke was hypertension.

He died on March 6 in Phoenixmarker of complications from the stroke shortly after being disconnected from life support, just 8 days away from his 46th birthday. The official cause of death was recorded as "cerebral hemorrhage due to hypertension." Puckett died at the second-youngest age (behind Lou Gehrig) of any Hall of Famer inducted while living, and the youngest to die after being inducted in the modern era of the five-season waiting period. Puckett is survived by his children, son Kirby Jr. and daughter Catherine. At the time of his death he was engaged to remarry.

A private memorial service was held in Twin Cities suburb of Wayzatamarker on the afternoon of March 12 (declared "Kirby Puckett Day" in Minneapolismarker), followed by a public ceremony held at the Metrodome attended by family, friends, ballplayers past and present, and approximately 15,000 fans (an anticipated capacity crowd dwindled through the day due to an incoming blizzard that night). Speakers at the latter service included Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew, Cal Ripken and Dave Winfield, and a multitude of former teammates and coaches.

See also



References

Further reading

  • A children's picture-book autobiography, Be the Best You Can Be (ISBN 0-931674-20-4), published by Waldman House Press in 1993;
  • An autobiography, I Love This Game: My Life and Baseball (ISBN 0-06-017710-1), published by HarperCollins in 1993; and
  • A book of baseball games and drills, Kirby Puckett's Baseball Games (ISBN 0-7611-0155-1), published by Workman Publishing Company in 1996


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