MINNEAPOLIS — I like Kirby Puckett. For the same reasons I like Babe Ruth, Santa Claus. For the same reasons you like Yogi Berra, the Easter Bunny, Gene Kelly movies or even the smell of bacon frying on a frosty morning.
He makes you feel good. He's chubby, cheerful. Comfortable. Like a favorite uncle.
Kids want to climb on his knee. Fans adore him. Baseball needs him. They wish they had 30 like him.
He looks as if he's enjoying himself. Too many ballplayers today act as if they're having a day at the lathe. Center field is a mine shaft.
Kirby comes to the park like a kid going to a fishing hole. Life is a Christmas tree. They should make him a ride at Disneyland. A float in a Rose Parade.
He acts as if he can't wait to wake up in the morning and get to the ballpark.
The great ones have this attitude. The Ruths, the Pete Roses. Roy Campanella was like this. "You got to have a lot of little boy in you to play baseball," he once told a writer.
Kirby Puckett has this quality. He's all man but you get the idea there's a 12-year-old locked in there some place. He smiles a lot. He's available. He loves baseball enough so that an hour of his time for television or the print media seems a small enough price to him to keep the carrousel going. Kirby likes people as much as they like him. It's not endemic in baseball.
It's not unreasonable to say Puckett is the soul of the Minnesota Twins. He probably won't get enough votes to get the MVP award, but maybe he should. The numbers are there but the fact is, if you took him out of the Minnesota Twins lineup, it would be like removing the battery of a Cadillac. It would still look good but it wouldn't be going anywhere.
Putting Kirby Puckett in the Metrodome is like putting Dempsey in a 12-foot ring. Someone's going to get hurt.
He looks fat but so did Ruth. The marshmallow exterior is filled with solid muscle. There's 30 home runs a year underneath that uniform. Kirby likes to eat but unlike Ruth he doesn't sneak hot dogs in his glove on the way to the outfield.
The St. Louis Cardinals don't have anybody like Kirby Puckett. They have all these guys who are like 6-furlong sprinters trying to steal a mile race.
The funny thing is, Kirby Puckett didn't set out to be Kirby Puckett. That is, if you said in his early career he played like Ruth, you might have meant his sister. Kirby thought he was going to be Rod Carew. Pete Rose. A line drive hitter. A spray hitter. In his first major league game, he got four hits. In his first season in the big leagues, he got no home runs. In his second, he got four.
He looked more like a St. Louis Cardinal than a New York Yankee. Or a Minnesota Twin. He even stole 41 bases in two years.
That game is wasted in the Metrodome. Stealing bases in the Metrodome is like saving pennies in a gold rush, bailing out a flood with a spoon.
Babe Ruth brought in big-inning baseball a half-century ago. The kind of game where you play for seven runs an inning instead of two a game.
When Puckett let his hands slide all the way down to the end of the bat and began to grunt when he swung, pitchers began to hate to see this little round tub of power step in.
He went from pesky to dangerous. He missed a lot of pitches this new way--but when you get two-to-four bases a hit, a strikeout is an acceptable pay-out. He swung a lot, he also hit a lot. His average actually improved. A lot of people overlook the fact a homer is also a hit. In the Homerdome, a ball that may be a routine fly out elsewhere finds the seats. The big swing is the way to go.
Not that Kirby was one of those hit-it-a-mile or miss-it-a-mile. Kirby went from 4 home runs to 31 home runs, but he also went from 199 hits to 223. He went from .288 to .328 to .332 this year. Kirby has 59 home runs in two years and 629 hits in three years.
The St. Louis Cardinals treat Kirby Puckett as if he's ticking. The pitchers nibble, they don't challenge him. In this ballpark which looks like the world's biggest hamburger bun they know that one mistake to Kirby can disappear in the Teflon.
In the only building in Minnesota where you need earmuffs indoors, the decibel level goes through the roof when Kirby comes to bat. The ultimate form of adoration, single-name identification is Kirby's and outfielders back up and infielders pace the tartan when the chant "Kir-bee!" goes up.
They've got lots of dangerous hitters on the Minnesota Twins but they're batting .259 (Tom Brunansky), .257 (Gary Gaetti) or .285 (Kent Hrbek). Kirby Puckett is batting .332. He's not only dangerous, he's consistent. He has driven in 195 runs in two years and scored 215.
The St. Louis Cardinals hoped to put the base back in baseball Sunday night, to take the seats out of the game, give this war back to the foot soldier.