Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Today was a sad day for me.
I'm in a bar, passing the time ogling various women, wondering why two of the three Freep columnists were on ESPN's Outside The Lines pontificating about Joe Dumars' success building the Pistons, and about Isiah Thomas', um, non-success with the Raptors, Pacers and Knicks.
And then SportsCenter starts running footage of Kirby Puckett.
And it hits me why they're showing this B-roll three minutes into it.
Kirby Puckett's dead.
I'm hoping it's not true. I'm hoping there's just nothing happening in the world of sports, so SportsCenter is killing time by covering the stroke he suffered the night before.
But, no.
The "death screen" comes on, followed by Bud Selig's comments.
Oh my God, Kirby Puckett's dead.
It's all I can do to keep from crying in the bar. No one else in the stupid bar is watching this, and probably no one else cares, and it's all I can do to stop myself from climbing under the bar and closing my eyes and willing the whole world to go away.

Kirby Puckett is dead.

Two things about me:
1.) I've been a baseball fan from almost the time I recognized the concept of organized sports.
I2.) knew, even as a kid, that I was not going to be small.
Every person on my mom's side of my family was, well, big-boned, if you're feeling generous.
My dad's family had a touch of lank, but there were definitely fat tendencies.
I throught I would be short and fat when I grew up.
Didn't bother me much when I did think about it. Except that I knew it pretty much killed my hopes of playing baseball. Sure, there was John Kruk. Fat, but also sorta useless in the field. Ditto Rob Deer. Even Tony Gwynn wasn't what you could call a star athlete. A star hitter, sure. But in the field?
And then there was Kirby Puckett.
Kirby was short, round, and didn't seem to care.
He was one of the best centerfielders in the game. A great hitter who stroked the ball for power AND for average. And through it all, he just looked like a fat kid having fun playing the greatest game in the world.
Well, if you were at all a baseball fan in the '80s and '90s, you probably know all this already.
So, I'll just say this: For me, Kirby Puckett was it. IT.
The first baseball game I ever attended, in Portland's Civic Stadium, was to see him play, when the Twins were visiting their Triple-A affiliate, the Beavers.
And it was great.
I probably became a baseball fan for life on that day.
I wrote him, to tell him about that game, and he sent me back a ton of Twins memorabilia, including a signed photo.
Was it personalized or anything? No.
But I remember being shocked that this major league baseball player, this All-Star, would take the time even just to send ANYTHING to a kid 1,500 miles away, a kid he'd never met, in a town he'd only played in once.
And so, my first (and only) dog, I named after him.
Looking back, I'm sure folks would have a field day with a nine-year-old in a lily-white Olympia suburb naming his gigantic black dog after quite possibly the largest black player in the majors.
But I didn't think about that.
Kirby Puckett was the greatest player ever, to my mind, so why wouldn't my dog be named after him? And every time I went to feed Kirby -- this dog that outweighed me by 30 pounds when he was 6 months old -- and he tried to knock me down, and I had to reprimand him, I felt a little bad. I hated saying the name "Kirby" in stern tones.
I think, growing up, I must've read everything ever written about him.
It almost killed me when he got hit by a pitch and eventually had to retire. For years, even as I became more and more of a Mariners fan, I'd start my day by checking the box scores for how he'd done in the previous day's game.
And then he was gone, out of the game for good.
To this day, when I meet, or even hear about, someone named Kirby, I like them right away.
It's that deeply ingrained.
Now, I know it's a goofy thing, this thing where we take athletes into our lives, seemingly make them part of our families without really knowing anything about them when they don't have the uniform on.
There were plenty of articles about how he was after he retired. He had his issues, his problems.
I can't, and won't, try to explain those away. Not here.
But, when he was on the field, he was great. He was who I wanted to be, more than anyone else in the world.
He gave me an autograph. He gave me baseball. He gave me hope.


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