The Puckett Principle

Beneath his easy, cheerful veneer, Kirby Puckett has always been obsessed with learning the rules of the game--on and off the field

By the time batting practice begins before the evening game at Lee County Stadium in Fort Myers, Florida, the sun is quickly dropping behind the grandstand, leaving a shadow over the entire infield. In the batting cage Kirby Puckett and teammates Shane Mack and Pedro Munoz are competing to see who can hit the ball the hardest.

"You got nothin', son," Puckett informs Mack, who is driving the ball with each swing of the bat. In contrast to his get-along public demeanor, Kirby often assumes the role of agitator with his teammates. His face sets in a solemn, all-business expression until he gets a reaction. Then his head tilts back and a deep laugh rises up in him.

Puckett is barrel-sized this spring. At work in the cage he's hatless, and the back of his neck is a stack of creases. He wears the same diamond-studded number 34 pendant he bought in 1985. "Some things are too good to change," he says.

The tarred bat squeaks in his grip. Waiting for his pitch, he swings as though it's his last chance to stay in the major leagues. He hits the first pitch. Rising beyond the shaded infield, the ball catches the last of the sunlight and glows all the way over the left field wall.

Hitting coach Terry Crowley watches from the side of the cage, his elbows resting on the padded frame. Even with his back turned he can identify the hard, crisp sound of a Puckett hit. "I remember him when I was with Baltimore," Crowley says. "When Kirby came up to home plate, he was so doggone dangerous. He could take you out in left field. He could take you out in right field. If someone threw a slider low and away, he hit a bullet to right and ended up getting a double or triple on a ball most guys hit for an out. If you brought the ball up and in, he'd turn on you. I want to make sure that's the Kirby Puckett we have in Minnesota in 1991."

He could hit from the start. He was only the ninth player in major league history to get four hits in nine innings in his debut. He's the first player in major league history to leap from zero home runs in one season (1984) to more than 30 in another (1986). Although he hit no home runs his rookie year, he batted .296. In his second season his average dipped to .288. The next spring, when then-hitting coach Tony Oliva's help, Puckett worked to earn the same respect afforded other good hitters. That season Puckett hit .332 with 31 home runs. In 1989 he hit 24 home runs and won the American League batting title with a .356 average.

Last year Puckett's average dipped to .298 with only 12 home runs. During the second half, as Oliva commented late in the season, "It was like he went back to his old style, [when] he hit the ball to the opposite field." The Puckett who emerged in 1986 is the hitter Crowley envisions for 1991. "The mechanics of pulling the ball are different from going the other way," notes Crowley. "It's not that you make up your mind and say, ĎWell, I'm going to pull the ball this year' and then go do it. It's a long process. Kirby has worked real hard in spring training to do these things."

Work is Puckett's ethos. But for a player who is by nature accommodating, his preference for a high average creates a conflict. It's just that when the going gets rough, he's not about to risk his bread-and-butter batting average for home run power. Growing up, Puckett survived on his capacity to focus on baseball and to rely on himself while at the same time making sure to please those who wielded authority.

Watching Kirby in the batting cage, you might glimpse how he played as a little boy. You see the singular drive he brought to baseball growing up in a tough Chicago housing project. Although most of his fans have ingested the fairy-tale version of his story--and it has those elements, with all its obstacles and triumphs--there is a different way to see Puckett, one that's less sentimental but no less amazing. It's more accurately a story of what a black kid in this society has to do to make it.

He learned his lessons well. More than one writer has forfeited a chance to do a Puckett story because of Kirby's skill for rambling on in a sweet, airy voice that makes an art of revealing absolutely nothing. He'd rather be safe than be known. It's one way he guards his ability to get along.

Puckett is one of the most loved and sought-out players in the game, especially by kids. When we met in the dugout to talk before games late last season, the stands were usually empty. One afternoon, though, a few boys finagled their way inside the Metrodome and spotted Kirby in the dugout. "Puckett," they shouted repeatedly, "Mr. Puckett, can we have your autograph?" At first Kirby thought that proceeding with the interview would dissuade them. But they persisted until he announced, "I'm busy right now, sir."

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