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Baseball '89 : A Preview : PUCKETT FULL OF MIRACLES : Twin Outfielder Is Fast Becoming Known as One of the Game's Best Players

April 02, 1989|ROSS NEWHAN | Times Staff Writer

ORLANDO, Fla. — At 5-foot-8 and 210 pounds, with that round, shaved head, barrel chest, linebacker thighs and Schwarzenegger arms, Kirby Puckett has been described in various manners--some complimentary, some not.

A cannonball. A fire hydrant. A Yoda in cleats.

"The Iron Sheik," says Minnesota Twins teammate Kent Hrbek, citing Puckett's resemblance to the wrestler of that name.

One description is now being heard more than any other, however.

It is now being said that Puckett, at 28, has become baseball's best all-around player. Who else? Don Mattingly, a first baseman? Jose Canseco, a right fielder? Eric Davis, who still has some proving to do?

Said Twin General Manager Andy MacPhail: "If Kirby was playing in New York, there'd be a 5-foot-8 statue of him in Times Square."

MacPhail has been building 5-8 statues of money. He recently signed his center fielder to a $2-million guarantee for 1989 and is attempting to make it a multiyear arrangement before Puckett is eligible for free agency at the end of the 1990 season.

MacPhail doesn't hesitate providing Puckett with bargaining fodder.

Canseco? Mattingly?

"I wouldn't trade Kirby even up," MacPhail said. "As far as a complete player who helps you win games, I don't think there's any comparison.

"I mean, I'm not sure I wouldn't take him on offensive production alone, but when you consider what he does defensively and in the intangible area of club leadership, then I can't see a comparison at all."

A club leader, too?

"He's not a Mickey Hatcher type," Hrbek said, alluding to the Dodgers' prank-minded free spirit. "Kirby leads by example. When he goes, we go.

"We even like to follow him out the door. Kirby always stops to sign a bunch of autographs and we can sneak by."

No wonder that the cuddly little Kirby Puckett Doll is the biggest seller at team outlets in the Twin Cities.

He's cute and it's cute, but this question of who the best all-around player is can't be answered by sales figures.

It takes figures of another kind, and the view of those who believe that seeing is believing.

Mel Didier, a special assignment scout for the Dodgers, compares Puckett to Willie Mays, a baseball deity.

"I liken him to Mays in that he gets a great jump on the ball, can go as far for it as Willie could and is just as acrobatic (as Mays) once he gets to it.

"He has a great trait as a hitter in that you can't get him out with the same pitch twice in a row. He's liable to hit it a mile. He'll definitely hit it hard.

"He's one of the two or three best in the game. I mean, if you were starting a team, you'd start by putting Ozzie Smith at shortstop and Puckett in center field."

Said MacPhail: "The best compliment I can give Kirby is that he's the type player scouts would pay to see."

Nice, but the comparison to Mays is better.

When Puckett was dreaming his impossible dreams in a South Side neighborhood of Chicago, the youngest of nine children, he dreamed of being a complete player like Mays and Ernie Banks.

Now that what he calls his "fairy tale" story has become reality, now that people are saying he may be baseball's best player, better than Mattingly or Canseco or anyone else, Puckett sits by his locker in the late stages of spring training and says:

"I'm flattered. It's nice being included in all-world company.

"But even when I was growing up in one of the toughest places in the world I felt I could be anything I wanted to be if I worked hard at it.

"Then and now I wanted to be the best. What else is there? I wanted to be like Mays. I wanted to be able to hit the home runs and make the great catches I saw him make on TV.

"I wanted people to say I worked hard and was a complete player like Mays and Banks."

And what are people saying? Well, there's Bert Blyleven, the former Twin pitcher now with the Angels, who said he definitely considers Puckett the all-around best.

"He can basically win a game by himself, but the thing about him is his attitude. He's a gamer," Blyleven said.

"As a pitcher I knew he was going to be out there every day, totally behind me on every play."

Said Hrbek: "No other hitter better combines power with the ability to make contact. Most power hitters look for one pitch. Puck is liable to take a pitch two feet outside and hit a bullet to right. He's liable to swing at anything, and he always hits it hard somewhere."

The rhetoric is compelling, but the numbers seem convincing.

--Puckett's .356 average of last year, second in the major leagues to Wade Boggs' .366, was the highest by a right-handed batter in the American League since Joe DiMaggio hit .357 in 1941.

--With 234 hits and 121 runs batted in, Puckett had more hits and RBIs in a single season than any player since Joe Medwick in 1937. The last American Leaguer to display those figures was Al Simmons in 1925.

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