The Puckett Principle
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, Well, 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."
Puckett grew up less than a mile from Comiskey Park, in the days when the White Sox rewarded students for academic accomplishments with tickets to ball games. "That was the highest thrill," he says. "As a kid I looked up to these guys just as baseball players. I never worried about what they did off the field. That never even crossed my mind. I wasn't an autograph-seeking kid either. Just to go to the park and sit out in the right-field bleachers, that satisfied me totally." He survived on the images he carried back to the Robert Taylor Homes, where he lived and played baseball.
The Taylor projects, a series of 16-story apartment buildings on Chicago's south side, are among the poorest tracts of housing in the United States. According to the New York Times, "Very few [places] can match the Taylor Homes in such measures as infant mortality, life expectancy, crime, and family disunity." The Homes consisted of large apartments, mostly populated by women, children, and teenagers. Because of the increasingly poor job market for unskilled workers when Kirby was growing up, few employed adult men lived in the projects. A family of gangbangers lived in the same building as the Pucketts. Kirby remembers Baby Glen, a kid distinguished by his lone earring and his scars. "Most of the people I grew up with are either in jail for selling drugs or they're dead," he says. "In that environment there was nothing else to do, I guess. People were always getting beaten up and shot. I knew you didn't get that playing baseball."
The Pucketts were one of the few intact families in the Taylor Homes. Kirby's father, Bill Puckett, held two jobs. Although his work left him little time at home, he provided for the physical needs of his family. Catherine Puckett was the architect of their home life. Raising nine children, she drew bold lines of discipline. Her rules were understood not only by Kirby but apparently by the rest of the community. Gangs such as the Vice Lords or the Cobra Stones routinely recruited young boys and challenged them to prove their manhood by stealing or selling drugs. They approached Kirby in the elevator, when it was functioning, or in the littered lobby, spray-painted with gang symbols. But he was never coerced. "I didn't want any part of it," Puckett says. "They knew not to bother me. I was too busy. They knew I had brothers and cousins--and a mom with a bat."
In an environment where anarchy was the rule for most of Kirby's peers, his mother's sense of discipline provided him with specific limits. He was free to play baseball outside all day. When it got dark, the streetlights signaled his curfew. Occasionally he would "succumb to peer pressure--be brave, stay out and take a whupping."
Sometimes a particular family was designated off-limits for Kirby. He wondered why. "As a kid, you want to learn from your own mistakes," he says. "I used to go by this theory--I learn it myself. So I'd sneak over there on my own time. They'd be drinking or whatever. Selling drugs, probably, stealing. If kids your age had all this money--20, 30 dollars--you knew something wasn't right. Then I'd sneak right back. I'd go, Well, my mom was right. There's nothing over there but trouble.'"
Puckett remembers his father, Bill Puckett, as a quiet, gentle man who would sit down in his favorite chair when he got home from work on Saturday and stay there through Sunday, his only day off. From his chair he supported Catherine's discipline of the children. If she doled out a whupping, the girls often sidled up to Dad for comfort. But he couldn't be had. "My mom and dad gave me all they could," Puckett says. "I woke up one morning and said, Dad, can I have a bike?' He never told me no. He had it there when I came back home." He says he cannot remember feeling deprived. Except for the green and yellow Huffy bicycle, all Kirby wanted was a bat, a ball, and a glove. "I was never cold, and we had plenty of food. I'm sure there were a lot more people in the world better off than me, but I still just loved what I had. A lot of guys have said they'd love to be rich. Not me. Some rich people don't teach their kids values."
This season he'll be playing out the second year of a three-year contract worth more than $9 million. "I never thought I'd make one million playing baseball," Puckett shrugs. "Money didn't matter back then, and it doesn't matter now." Puckett might be the only player who can say that and be taken seriously. He practices a certain simplicity and restraint when it comes to material things. Besides the diamond-studded number 34 chain that he wears around his neck, Puckett limits his jewelry to a watch and his wedding ring. He wears his World Series ring on special occasions only. At the end of last season he and his wife, Tonya, moved into a new house they built after waiting until they had saved the money to pay for it. "Everybody's in debt," he shakes his head. "That's the American way. That just wasn't me. I was always scared if something really drastic happened and I didn't have enough money to make the coverage I wouldn't feel good. If I really want something, I'll wait."
Listening to him tell his story, you realize Puckett has planned his affairs watchfully and cautiously from an early age; money was part of the equation. As a kid he received $12 a week for his lunch and bus fare to school. At the beginning of each week he laid the money out on his bed. "You figure if I had $12 a week, it was about $2.50 a day." His hands go through the motions of apportioning each day's allotment. "Thirty-five cents to ride the bus, a dime for lunch--I wasn't really supposed to get it for a dime, but I had some friends in the office--that's 45 cents. I have a dollar and five cents to work with. That's for the extras, like if I wanted pop after practice, or if I want to be a big shooter and have a girlfriend in and buy her a little pop or something. That was big time to me, man."
As far back as he remembers, the single-minded Puckett had a hard time relating to other kids for fun. He recalls playing with the sons of his mother's friends. "But they never played ball with me," he says, "because I was too good." And playing ball was Puckett's life. By the time he was 10, he was playing with 16-year-olds who were more his peers in athletic ability.
For a time he bribed other kids to play with him. "Like if I had a dollar," Puckett explains, "I'd buy 100 pieces of candy. When all the candy was gone, I'd have nothing else to maneuver them with, so they'd go their way and I'd end up playing by myself. Nobody liked to hang around me because I played baseball all the time. They had no use for me and I had no use for them."
It's easy to be romantic about that picture: the driven future star, his glove dangling from the end of a bat slung over his shoulder, heading down the stairwell to go out and find a game. But that ignores the harsh realities that figured in Kirby's driven personality. Puckett was one of nine children, nine years younger than his next oldest sibling. His conception was a "mistake," his mother told him. It was made clear to all the Puckett kids that once they finished high school, they were on their own. At 14 his sisters were employed in a bank. Kirby's job was to play baseball.
Girls were the exception to his otherwise solitary life. "Girls, always," Kirby says. "Not because I played baseball. They just liked me." He wasn't attractive in the conventional sense. He was short; his buck teeth eventually required braces for three years. Even his mother teased, "What do they see in your ugly self?" What they saw was his free spirit. Nothing is so compelling as the comeliness of independence. Kirby was pursued. If they were content to wait until after ball, Kirby had time for girls in the evening. They were welcomed into the Puckett home, where they watched TV with Kirby while Catherine served Kool Aid and buttered popcorn in Bill's brown paper lunch bags.
When Puckett was 12 and the only child left at home, his family moved. His dad was promoted in his job with the postal service, allowing the family to afford an apartment in a better neighborhood farther south. "It was heaven to me," he recalls. "There were white folks who lived on the floor below us and white people next door, and I got a chance to go out there and experience the other parts of living. The white kids accepted me. I didn't bother nobody. I found out where the park was and I went about my business. My dad bought me a bicycle; I had my ball and my bat. I went to the park and played catch against the wall by myself. If someone else came over, Can I play with you?'--you know how kids are--I said, sure."
Much has been written about Puckett's body; it begs to be described. According to Kirby, his brothers and sisters take after his dad, while he resembles his mother. "I mean, she was short," he says. "And my dad was like six-one. This build you see now, it's just like my mom. She had broad shoulders, and had calves. My feet are identical to hers, my smile. I got my mom's nose."
His physique is not entirely a matter of inheritance, though. In high school he decided that if he had to be short, at least he would be muscular. Inspired by the popularity of Arnold Schwarzenegger, he and a friend embarked on a body-building regimen. Every morning they gulped drinks concocted of raw eggs and orange juice. Before long, the combination of the drinks and Puckett's passion for weightlifting changed his body before his eyes. "It was like going through puberty all over again," he says.
Girded in a new body, Puckett was suddenly attracted to football. "Peer pressure," he explains. Since the team coveted Puckett's speed, the coach pleaded with Catherine to let Kirby play. She wouldn't hear of it. The risk of injury was too great.
Kirby attended an all-black high school ("white teachers and stuff, but it was all black"). The school's baseball team got to compete against private white school teams with well-funded athletic programs. Since scouts wouldn't venture into the ghetto, Kirby depended on starring when his team competed at those schools, which were located in less threatening areas around Chicago. But when he finally received a scholarship offer from Miami Dade North Junior College, he turned it down. "I decided I wanted to take a year off from school and baseball and see what else was out there. This was the one year that was really experimental for me."
His attraction to society "out there" required equal parts cunning and denial. In the way he ignored the limits of his unathletic body, he denied the limits imposed on him because of his skin color and his class. He had the ability to be at once content where he was and curious about a greater world. Gradually he developed an acute intuition for how it worked. His hunger for knowledge of the world beyond his experience was so strong he was willing to chuck baseball for a while.
"I had a buddy who worked at Ford Motor Company on an assembly line," he says, "and they needed help. I got a job making $8 an hour. I was 18. Oh, man. All other friends were like working at McDonald's making the minimum wage. We were making Thunderbirds." Gauged by the intensity of his voice and his eyes as he describes the work, he might as easily be talking about an at-bat in the World Series.
"Grab the carpet, throw it in. For the carpet to be just right we had to set it down with the bolts so the guys could put the seats in. I was sore for the first couple weeks from lifting all that carpet. Plus the paycheck was good.
"Here I am bringing home 500 bucks cash, and I'm 18 years old. My first paycheck, I stopped at the currency exchange to cash it, because I didn't know anything about no bank account. They charged me like $20 to cash my check. I was so scared. My mom used to always tell me," he whispers, "Put your money in your sock. So I put all it in my sock, except for like $20. When I got home I said, Mom and Dad, I want you to come in here.' I took all my money out and I said, I want you to take whatever you want and enjoy yourselves.' I can remember they didn't want to take anything. They were shocked. They took like $100 and opened a bank account."
One day short of eligibility for membership in the union, he was fired. Through another friend he was hired by the census bureau at $6 an hour. A short time later, while attending a Kansas City Royals tryout camp, Puckett was approached by the baseball coach from Bradley University. "I checked out your grades, Puckett," he said. "You're a smart kid. Why don't you come to Bradley? Full ride."
"You should have seen my mom and dad crying when I told them," Kirby says. "They were so elated. And when I left for college--I'll never forget it as long as I live--my mom and dad were standing at the front door and tears were coming from their eyes. I was only going two hours away. It was my time to go." That was the last time he saw his dad. Bill Puckett died three weeks later.
"I don't want it to seem like I was a burden or anything, but here I was 19 years old, and they'd spent all their lives taking care of me. All of a sudden, it's time for me to do something for myself. I was stepping out the door to be a man, and take that responsibility. It wasn't going to be well, Mom, I need money.' I was on my own. That's pretty scary."
Kirby had something to prove then, and has since continued the process of setting challenges for himself. It's the way he maintains purpose in his life. Each day at the ballpark he enters the batting cage "with one thing in mind I want to accomplish." Sometimes he practices pulling the ball. Other times he focuses on the proper placement of his front foot in his stride at the plate. As one longtime associate of the Twins recently commented, "I don't think he takes [baseball] for granted like Kent [Hrbek] does. All his life he's worked for what he has. Kent has been such a natural. Kirby will always come to the ballpark early and work because there's enough inside that will keep him going."
Puckett approaches his personal life the same way. Catherine Puckett always told Kirby she wanted him to be able to speak well; today he prides himself on his conversational abilities, and--armed with several dictionaries--continues to coach himself during the off-season when he has time.
After his dad died, Kirby transferred to Triton Junior College to be closer to home. He wanted to quit school and take care of his mother, but she protested. "We've invested too many baseballs in you," she said.
The classes that fascinated Puckett most during his college days were the ones in criminal justice. "I told my college coach I wanted something academic along the way, in case I don't make it in baseball, in case my dream falls short. [In that case] I wanted to be a police officer or a private investigator. Even the teacher told me I was one of the smartest guys. I never drifted off in criminal justice because I wanted to know how the system worked and how people actually go about getting around the system. To this day I haven't really found out, but I'm really reading. I've got this bookcase, I've got my books, so I just grab a book and read about the system and how it works. I kind of get fired up."
At the ballpark his batting average (.472) and home runs (16) caught the attention of Twins minor league director Jim Rantz. When the Twins selected Puckett in the secondary phase of the January 1982 draft, he rejected their $4,000 signing bonus and opted for another semester in school. The Twins solicited him again after he was named the Junior College Player of the Year in Triton's region. This time they offered a $20,000 bonus. Puckett signed. "I never asked anyone to give me anything," he says. "I knew I could play baseball. I knew I could be good one day."
Puckett made his major league debut against the California Angels on May 8, 1984, after only two seasons in the minors. When he failed to get a hit on the first pitch, he was flooded with doubts and wondered if he could hit major league pitching. He ended up singling in that at-bat and getting three more hits in the game.
In 1984 Darrell Brown and Ron Washington were the only other black players on the Twins' major league roster. Washington had spent most of 11 years in the minor leagues before his first full season the majors. He was relegated to a utility role with the Twins. As a weathered journeyman, Washington "took me under his wing," Kirby says, "and showed me what the big leagues were all about--how they would pitch me. It was a combination of things."
Kirby has since assumed the same role with minor league players Jarvis Brown ("everyone calls him Little Puck") and Lenny Webster, and major league teammates Shane Mack and Al Newman.
Newman is Puckett's best friend. As a utility infielder he has moments of shining at third base, shortstop, and second, where he has recorded most of his playing time. "Kirby was one of the few blacks on the team when he first came up," Newman says. He's in the dugout long before batting practice begins, talking around a huge wad of bubblegum. "So to me he just explained, This is the way it is.' My wife is not black, and when I was traded here, I was kind of leery. I didn't know how it would be handled by the Twins. So I just asked Kirby and he told me, She's your wife. You're going to love her regardless of what they think.' He just explained the rules. He makes you feel comfortable in an environment some people don't think is conducive to blacks."
Everyone expects cheerfulness from Puckett and Newman. On the surface they share a similarly blithe outlook. But their approaches to the world differ. This is where the kid who wanted to get off the Chicago streets, who plays hard and "doesn't bother nobody," runs deep. While Newman concerns himself with issues of race and economics, the guardianship of other black players on the team is about as political as Puckett gets. He seems to consider less what his influence could mean for how people look at the issue than how it might affect their view of Kirby Puckett and the image he wants to project. "He and Kent Hrbek are the figureheads of our team," Newman says. "For Puckett to come out and say something that might be controversial would only hurt his image. Then people would begin to think, well, Kirby Puckett thinks like that. Here's Kirby Puckett, a black guy, who is saying that there are some whites who are prejudiced.
"I don't think he's blind to this. If you asked him off the record he'd probably say yeah. But to come forth and actually say it--did you read Jim Brown's book?" Newman interrupts himself. "He's got this controversial book out about black athletes, guys like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, where he calls them house brothers--guys who are at a certain level and have the power to come out and say, Whoa, it's like this, but they don't. That's just the way Kirby's got to play it. I don't disrespect him for it. Maybe I pay more attention to guys like Jesse Jackson, and listen to what they say, and then counter-check society. Where he doesn't do that. He's a very easygoing guy."
When Puckett does talk about issues of race, he makes them sound far removed from the south side of Chicago. "You saw all this stuff on TV about all these people at these rallies and saw them fighting with the KKK," he says. "But while they were fighting it was kind of mind-boggling to me."
Puckett's defense against controversy and anger is his means of continuing to get along. He spelled out his philosophy in advice he once gave to Jose Canseco. "Josey, I said--because he's kind of snobbish to people--Josey, you know there's a way you can say things to people without being mean or having them say things about you.' He's the kind of person just says, F em I don't care what they think.' And I say you can still be nice to people because, sure as you're on top of the world, you're going to start coming back down and the same people you said those things to on the way up, you might have to meet again when you come back down."
Watch him walking from the batting cage or in from the outfield. He has a way of observing, taking in everything on the periphery. His bright eyes are the focal point of his dark face. They scan one direction, then the other, as though looking over each shoulder without ever turning his head. His is a style of maintained vigilance. It's a quality needed for playing the outfield, hitting ball, running the bases. But Puckett has also scoped out the System in Minnesota and plays it perfectly. The Twins are one of two teams (the Mets being the other) notorious for their disproportionate number of white players. "If he were playing on either coast, they'd be building statues," Twins GM Andy MacPhail once said. In Minnesota, they sell Kirby Bears.
Puckett grew up knowing that his talent wouldn't be enough. He'd have to be twice as good as the next guy. It's what you see when he works in the batting cage. He's still not taking any chances. "When I come to the ballpark, I'm still living a dream," he says. "I realize there is more to life than baseball. I don't think a lot of people, baseball players, would actually say that, because they think they're living life right now. They don't realize that one day it's all going to come to an end. One day I'm going to wake up and I'm not going to be Kirby Puckett the Minnesota Twins baseball player anymore; I'll just be Kirby Puckett the average, everyday person who was a great ballplayer. I hope people think about me when I'm out of the game, sure. But I've got a lot of life to live."
He is as deliberate about planning his life after baseball as he has been about achieving his position in the major leagues. He plans to open his own business when his baseball career ends, and he has consulted with personnel at a local college who can help prepare him for the venture. "I realized that if something happened, I'm not afraid go out there and look for a new job," Puckett says. "I'd be willing to bet some of those people are scared." Kirby, on the other hand, is a process man. He proceeds one step at a time. "The mind is a terrible thing to waste," he says. "In order to make it in this world, this tough world that we have out here today, you have to be smart, because street-smart doesn't always get it. I'm street-smart. It's the other smart too. I want to be prepared for that too. I'm going to go on down other avenues. I found out there really isn't anything to be scared of."
Puckett's American dream differs from the white boys' version, the one dressed in a major league baseball uniform. What Puckett dreams about, many of the white guys around him have as a matter of birthright. Baseball has made all that possible for Puckett, too. But within his family are reminders of what his life might have been like. Last year the father of his niece was shot and killed on Lake Street.
"Money tends to cover up a lot of things," Al Newman says. "If you have money, people tend to look at you different. The only color of money is green. If you're black, and you don't have the money, then life's realities are there."
Puckett is late for our final interview. When he finally comes downstairs from the clubhouse the sight of the writer reminds him of the appointment.
"I'm sorry," he groans. "I forgot." He looks preoccupied as he pulls his bats out of the storage bin and loads them into his cubbyhole in the bat rack. "That's not very professional of me, is it? It must be my age," he continues. He's complained recently about being old and feeling sore. He says it takes a month after the season ends for his body to stop hurting. He recalls his mother's warning about turning 30 and how then everything changes in your body.
Tony Oliva has approached from the batting cage, just in time to hear Kirby. "You're not at your peak," Oliva says.
"You're right, I'm not at my peak," Puckett says, checking a bat for cracks. "I'm past it."
"When I was your age..." Oliva begins, but Puckett interrupts.
"Five more years," he says. Puckett is bent over, applying pine tar to his bat. He lifts his head, sneaking a peak at Oliva to see if he's still getting a reaction. He giggles but Tony is dead serious. Last year Oliva became responsible for a brother who moved here, and the Twins announced over the off-season that this will be his last year as a field coach. He doesn't have Puckett's options.
"Five more years?" Oliva asks. You'd think by the look on his face they just stripped him of his batting titles.
"Six or maybe seven," Kirby says. "We're adopting a baby. In five more years my kid's going to kindergarten and I'm not missing that for nothing, man."
"You'll miss baseball," Tony warns.
"You're right. I probably will miss it. But there's more to life than baseball. I know that, and that's more than about 50 million other people know."
"He gets along with everybody," says Al Newman, "but then he really doesn't fit into any one clique. He's one of those guys who just mixes well with everybody, and everybody really does love Kirby Puckett. He's full of laughter, full of joy." Newman watches Puckett for a moment in the batting cage. "Sometimes I wonder about that guy," he says. "He's complex in the sense that he wants to be loved and accepted by everybody. And in order to be that way... it's tough."
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