06 March 2006

Kirby Puckett | 1960-2006

Kirby Puckett died today at the age of 45. Here's to one of the great ballplayers of my lifetime.

After being slaughtered by Atlanta in Game Five of the 1991 World Series, the Twins were facing elimination while going back to the Metrodome. When Kirby Puckett held a team meeting before Game Six, reportedly telling his team "not to worry" because he was "going to put [them] on [his] back," little did anyone know that they were about to play two of the greatest games in baseball history over 21 innings- and that Kirby was right.

Game Six was an excellent pitching matchup- 21 year old ace Steve Avery threw for the Braves against 23 year old 20 game winner Scott Erickson for the Twins. Atlanta had all the momentum, coming home from winning three straight at Atlanta Fulton-County- Games Three and Four as squeakers and Game Five as a rout. Erickson hadn't fared well his last time out, in Game Three, lasting only 4.2 IP and surrendering 3 ER. Avery, on the other hand, had earned the victory in that same game by last 7 and giving up only 2 ER.

The Twins hopped out to an early lead after Puckett tripled in Chuck Knoblauch with one out, and scored the Twins' second run off of Shane Mack's single two batters later. Erickson, meanwhile, looked strong through 4 IP, giving up only two singles without advance. This, of course, included a towering drive off the bat of Ron Gant in the 3rd inning that, while showing such thunder and promise off the bat, eventually worked it's way into Kirby Puckett's glove some 375 ft. later, robbing him of at least extra bases, and possibly a HR, in what is (along with Mays' catch in the 54 Series and Tommie Agee's in the 69 Series) one of the great catches in World Series history.

Then, in the fifth, with Lonnie Smith on first, NL MVP Terry Pendleton took a Scott Erickson pitch out of the Hubert H Humphrey Metrodome, tying the game and bringing the Braves that much closer to a title. In the Twins' fifth, however, Dan Gladden worked a walk and squirmed his way to third with a stolen base and an advance on Chuck Knoblauch's liner to right. With a runner on third and one out, Kirby Puckett came through again- hitting a sac fly to CF to get Gladden home. The Twins re-gained the lead.

In the Braves' 7th, with the bases loaded and one out, Carl Willis was called from the bullpen to face Ron Gant and David Justice with the game, more or less, on the line. He got Gant to force Pendleton at 2nd, but Lemke was able to score, tying the game. Willis then still needed to get out the power hitting Justice- which he did, by way of a strikeout, ending the perilous inning.

And then the zeroes came- one after the other, inning after inning. After a few mild close calls, Atlanta SP Charlie Liebrandt was summoned from the bullpen in the 11th inning. With the game furiously ripping through his bullpen, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox knew that every starter he had save for Smoltz (the Game Seven starter) was bullpen fodder now. Liebrandt, a 34 year old LHP in his 12th season, was at the tail end of what would be his last great year- one that was a bit of a resurgence for him. Liebrandt came into the game with RHH Kirby Puckett leading off. Cox had already used Alejandro Pena and Mike Stanton in the game. His choice of pitchers wasn't strong, as it had been a long Series thus far. He had the following available:

John Smoltz
Jim Clancy
Mark Wohlers
Randy St. Claire
Juan Berenquer

Tom Glavine
Kent Mercker
Charlie Liebrandt

Smoltz was out because he was starting the next day in Game Seven if the Braves didn't pull it out. Clancy had worked two innings the game before, and St. Claire one. Glavine was out as well- if you were going to bring in a starter at that point, it would have been Liebrandt, who hadn't started since Game Four. Glavine had started Game Five. Cox was also likely holding closer Juan Berenquer back until the Braves could grab a lead.

That left Mercker, Liebrandt and Wohlers. Technically Clancy and St. Claire COULD have gone- but it seems like Cox's mind was made up strategy-wise. Liebrandt was his best pitcher available- you'd use him over the lefty Mercker, and the 21 year old Wohlers, who'd only thrown ~20 innings all regular season. This way, it saves the sharper bullpen arms for a Game Seven if it comes to that, and Liebrandt can be used for longer stretches. Maybe Cox overthought it- at the end of the day, the Twins' best hitter was coming up, and he was right handed- Liebrandt was a lefty.

Any way you look back on it, the results never change. In the middle of the night on October 26th, 1991, Kirby Puckett took Liebrandt's fourth pitch- a changeup (not) low (enough) and (not) away (enough)- deep to LF, skating high over the hockey-esque glass OF partitions that stood along the Metrodome fences back then, and sending the Series to a 7th game. Puckett literally did what he said he would- he carried his team, on his own, into the Game Seven where anything could have happened- the Twins, after being demolished in Game Five, were only one Kirby Puckett performance away from "anything can happen," and as dire a situation as that may have seemed on the late hours of October 24th, you couldn't blame a Twin fan for not being especially surprised in the late hours of October 26th. That was Kirby Puckett. That's what he did, and that's how he played. 24 hours later, Gene Larkin singled home Dan Gladden in the 10th inning, putting the imprimatur on Jack Morris's mind boggling 10 inning shutout masterpiece in what is likely the greatest World Series game ever played- but the man to thank was Kirby. He got them there.

Two quick things about Kirby- there were been a lot of rough things post-career in Puckett's life, none of which I'm going to defend because
a) I don't know the truth or the details, and
b) If true, they're exceptionally repugnant.

I think Puckett is as great a case as any to prove that, as much as we may think we know and understand these players- we don't. We don't know them, who and how they are, and what they're about. There is little doubt that no player in my lifetime played the game like Kirby Puckett, with the love and appreciation he did. Over the years, that quickly came to subsitute for moral greatness. This is a flawed idea; almost as flawed as Kirby ended up being. It's not fair to anyone. That's always why I've judged players and players, and not as moral compasses.

I also remember that my first interaction with baseball statistics and measurement came through the prism of, along with Wade Boggs, Kirby Puckett. I realized that a couple years running, it seemed that the pesky little bastard giving Wade a run for his batting title money was some toady shrimp in Minnesota named Kirby Puckett. He looked like a smiling fire hydrant that somehow managed to run faster and jump higher than anyone else. I rooted for Wade to win that title every year, but I don't know if I can overstate how enjoyable it was to watch a player shaped like Kirby Puckett to play as well as he did.

Kirby's five best season, by WARP3:


Kirby Puckett, with his 11.8 WARP3 and 12 FRAA in CF, lost the MVP that year to Dennis Eckersley, who threw 80 IP out of the bullpen.

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