On the Death of Heroes
I wrote the following essay for the 1997 edition of the Minor League Scouting Notebook.
"Hero worship is not confined to children. We all have heroes whether we know it or not. Only the most cynical among us would deny this, and even the cynical have heroes, even if they won't admit it. I'm cynical myself, and I try hard not to buy into the false heroism so common in our society. I do have heroes, though. . .
"I'm returning from a minor league baseball game in Wichita as I write the rough draft of this in my mind. If you have ever driven the Kansas Turnpike, you know what I mean when I say that the only thing to do at night, other than avoid the odd deer running across the road, is think. I'm between the Matfield Green rest area and Emporia. There is nobody else on the road. There aren't any cities or towns nearby, so you can see the stars very clearly. In the far north, you can see lightning from a distant thunderstorm, probably near my destination of Lawrence. But that's an hour and a half away.
"One good thing about this road is that the radio reception is great at night. You can pick up Denver, New Orleans, St. Louis, Cincinnati, even Atlanta at times. I'm listening to a syndicated sports radio show to get the baseball scores. They start talking about baseball news: what's up with Darryl Strawberry, has Albert Belle done anything worth suspending him over lately, should Steve Howe get his five thousandth chance? Oh, yeah, by the way, Kirby Puckett just retired.
"I'm probably one of the few people my age who still finds radio fascinating. After Des Moines Cablevision stopped carrying Twins games in 1979, my only contact with Twins play-by-play was WCCO radio coming out of Minneapolis. On May 8th, 1984, I heard a rookie outfielder named Kirby Puckett go 4-for-5 in his major league debut. Puck became my favorite player.
"There isn't anything I can say about Kirby that hasn't already been said better by someone else. His forced retirement was one of the most important sports events of the recent past, but the only time the major national media paid much attention to it was on the day of his retirement. Michael Irvin's drugs and hookers were more interesting.
"The internet bulletin boards are full of arguments about Puckett's Hall of Fame qualifications, but that's not an argument I'm going to get into. My regret, as I think about this on a lonely Kansas road, is that I won't be able to share with my unborn children the joy of watching Kirby Puckett play baseball."
I wrote that nine years ago. Obviously some things have changed. My unborn children are born now, Nicholas in 1998 and Jackson last fall. But there's still no Kirby Puckett, and even his memory is a ghost now.
One of the points of the essay is the contrast between the squeaky-clean Puckett and the scandal-tainted stars who get more media attention. But we know now that Kirby was not squeaky-clean; indeed, his personal life was a wreck, a wreck that apparently got even worse after his forced retirement. But none of this was evident during his career.
I have been a baseball fan for close to 30 years. Age takes its toll; idealism fades. I really don't have any heroes on the field any more. But Kirby was special to me, for his joy on the field, for bringing a spark of life to a moribund franchise, for innumerable flashes of fun, for Game 6, 1991.
The heroic image of Kirby Puckett died long ago. Now the man has died as well. There are worse things than death, and while the age of his passing was early by current standards, it's even harder to imagine Kirby living the kind of life he might have had had to live if he'd survived such a massive stroke, incapacitated or worse.
Minnesota blogger Aaron Gleeman wrote this the other day:
"The Puckett we knew so well -- or as we found out later, thought we knew so well -- died years ago. That doesn't take away from the greatness of his life or the sadness of his death, but it might explain why I'm struggling so much to come up with a proper tribute."
Aaron sums up my own thoughts very closely.
Goodbye, Kirby Puckett. There will never be another.