Game Six - Down to the Last Pitch: How the 1991 Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves Gave Us the Best World Series of All Time - Tim Wendel

Down to the Last Pitch: How the 1991 Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves Gave Us the Best World Series of All Time - Tim Wendel (2014)

Game Six

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 26, 1991

AT HUBERT H. HUMPHREY METRODOME

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA

By the bottom of the eleventh inning things had gotten to the point at which Kirby Puckett believed he could predict the future. Leading off the inning, Puckett told teammate Chili Davis, who was in the on-deck circle, that his services would no longer be needed in this game, one that would be remembered as one for the ages. If Atlanta’s latest reliever, left-hander Charlie Leibrandt, got his changeup up in the strike zone, he told Davis he was going to end it right here and now.

Legend has it that Puckett said something like, “You listening, Dog? It’s going to be all over. We can’t have another game like we did down in Atlanta, where TK runs out of players and has to ask poor Aggie to bat. I’m going to take pitches, I tell ya, Dog. Take pitches until that changeup of Leibrandt’s rides up in the zone. It’s going to rise, I tell ya, Chili Dog, and when it does I plan to do something about it.”

With that, Kirby Puckett stepped up to the plate, with the score tied at 3-3. No matter that until this point in the 1991 World Series the Twins’ star had just five hits in twenty-one at-bats and hadn’t demonstrated much patience at the plate. He had struck out twice against Leibrandt back in Game One. Yet as Chili Davis and the rest of the baseball world looked on, Puckett did begin to wait Leibrandt out. Waiting for that changeup to rise in the zone.

Decades later Davis remembered that he and Puckett were indeed jawing with each other before this epic World Series at-bat. But it is funny how things can be played up, warped beyond recognition over the years, especially when something of real consequence takes place. Davis, who was as close to Puckett as anybody on the 1991 Twins, recalled their conversation quite differently from what was later chronicled, even by Puckett himself.

“We were barking at each other,” Davis agreed. “But we were barking at each other because at first Puck wanted to bunt.”

Bunt?

Davis and I were speaking across one of the tables in the Oakland Athletics’ clubhouse, where the ex-slugger now worked as the team’s hitting coach.

“You heard what I said,” Davis smiled. “Puck at first was all set to bunt his way on. Believe it or not, he came up to me and said, ‘Dog, I’ve got this game plan. Tell me what you think. I don’t hit these soft throwers like Leibrandt very well.’

“Now you have to remember that Puck could really bunt. He had a good chance of bunting for a hit. So he’s all excited and telling me, ‘I’ll get one down and then I’ll steal second. You hit these guys—better than me. Take it to the gap, and I’ll score the winner. That will be the ballgame.’”

With that Davis leaned back in his chair, remembering this moment from decades ago, and shook his head. How did he respond after hearing Puckett’s grand plan? This scheme to get on with a bunt?

“I told him, ‘That’s a bad plan, Puck. These people didn’t come here to watch you bunt. Not now. Not on this night.’”

Emphatically Davis urged Puckett to swing away. Telling him that one good knock could end this ballgame, here and now. That is what the two of them are seen discussing in the footage of Game Six. Davis recalled ending the conversation by telling the Twins’ star not to swing at anything down in the strike zone.

“Look for something up,” he told Puckett. “Don’t chase that changeup of Charlie Leibrandt’s. Don’t try to pull him. Just try to put the ball in the gap.”

Soon enough Puckett began to believe in what Davis was saying. For a moment Puckett became the flock and Davis the preacher man until those roles suddenly pivoted, with the Twins’ superstar breaking into one of his legendary riffs, telling his friend Chili that of course he could hit that fickle changeup, especially if it dared rise up in the strike zone.

The whole plan and brash talk almost went out the window when Leibrandt’s first pitch—a changeup, naturally—sailed low across the plate, only to have home plate umpire Ed Montague call it a strike.

“That pitch really scared me,” Davis recalled. “It was maybe knee high, maybe, and it got the strike call? So now I’m worried that I gave Puck the wrong advice. I’m thinking if Leibrandt throws you another one of those, you’ve got to swing, Puck.”

Somehow the Twins’ slugger remained patient at the plate, even with so much on the line. After that first pitch sailed in low for a called strike, the next one was too high. Ball one. Then came another changeup from Leibrandt, and this one, thankfully, was called low for ball two by Montague.

With the count 2-1, Leibrandt tried to fool Puckett with another changeup, this time on the outside half of the plate. Puckett was waiting on it, though, and he put a good swing on the offering. As the ball began to carry toward left-center field, the sellout crowd and the Twins in their dugout rose, with everybody trying to gauge whether it would have enough power to carry out of the ballpark.

From his vantage point in the on-deck circle, Davis couldn’t believe what his friend had pulled off. “Puck waited him out,” he said more than twenty years later, drumming his fingertips briefly on the clubhouse table. This particular at-bat remained as clear as anything that ever happened to him in the game. “Leibrandt puts a ball up in the zone, and the next thing I knew Puck hit it… . Whether or not it would clear that Plexiglas atop the outfield fence, that was the question from where I was watching. That was the only question in my mind.”

Confident that he had hit it hard but unsure how far the ball would carry, Puckett took off, running hard out of the batter’s box, heading toward first base. Thus began a journey around the diamond that many will never forget and one that the Twins’ best player would arguably never recover from.

———

If ever a game was a story unto itself, Game Six was. In Puckett the Twins had a leader in talk and action. In the first inning he had tripled home a run and later scored. In the third inning, with a runner on, he made a terrific leaping catch up against the Plexiglas fence, denying the Braves’ Ron Gant of a home run.

“If he hadn’t made that catch,” teammate Gene Larkin said, “we might have lost the World Series right there.”

Before Game Six, after the Twins had been swept in Atlanta, now one loss from elimination, Puckett called an impromptu players-only meeting back in Minneapolis. There he told his teammates, “Jump on board, boys. I’m going to carry us tonight. Don’t even worry about it. Just back me up a little and I’ll take us to Game Seven.”

Larkin recalled the Twins being “in a bad way” after the three consecutive losses in Atlanta. “Not many guys can talk the talk and walk the walk, but Kirby always could for us. We knew he was going to do something special and here it was—on the biggest stage.”

Puckett’s interactions with his teammates were rarely so serious. When he was around one of the team mottoes was, “Everybody has a price,” said Dave Winfield, who came to the Twins in 1993. One time, after a game in Oakland, Puckett bribed the driver of the team bus to take everyone to a barbecue place “right in the middle of the ghetto,” Winfield remembered. Chicken and ribs never tasted so good, and everyone got back to the hotel safely.

Once, the Twins had a bat boy Puckett nicknamed “Little Snoop.” The Twins’ star offered the kid $600 to shave off his large Afro. At first Little Snoop refused, but Puckett kept passing the hat in the Twins’ clubhouse until the pot climbed to $800. The bat boy agreed to the haircut, and Puckett took the first pass at that head of hair and then pretended that the electric clippers had somehow broken.

“The kid looks in the mirror, and this big Afro has a strip right down the middle,” Puckett recalled. “Little Snoop says, ‘Oh, my mamma’s going to kill me … she’s going to kill me.’”

Raised in south Chicago, the youngest of nine children, Puckett loved to play baseball and said that the game kept him off the mean streets. Despite being a star third baseman for Calumet High School, he received only one scholarship offer, from Miami-Dade Junior College in Florida, which he decided was too far away from home. Instead, he found work for a time putting down carpet for the new Thunder-birds, which rolled off the line at the local Ford plant. At a tryout camp he caught the eye of Dewey Kalmer, the coach at Bradley University in Peoria, who offered him a scholarship. With the Bradley infield already set for the season, Puckett moved to the outfield and led the team with eight home runs in his lone season at the school. When Puckett’s father died, the ballplayer transferred to Triton Junior College in River Grove, Illinois, so he could be closer to home. But before really getting started at Triton, Puckett played for Quincy in the Central Illinois college summer league.

Baseball was barely operational in the summer of 1981, as the major leagues were on strike. Owners wanted compensation for the loss of free-agent players to other teams. The players considered this an attempt to undercut the recent gains in free agency. Play stopped for fifty days, costing 712 major-league games, and as a result most clubs didn’t pay for their scouts to do any traveling.

Jim Rantz, the Twins’ assistant farm director, spent his free time watching his son, Mike, play for Peoria in the summer league. That’s how he happened to be in stands when Puckett’s Quincy team took the field. Rantz remembered Puckett collecting several hits and making a great throw from center field to nail a runner at the plate. The best part? No other scouts were in attendance.

Rantz compiled a glowing report about Puckett, and the Twins made the neophyte outfielder their first pick (the third overall) in that year’s draft. Puckett rose through the Twins’ farm system, leading the Appalachian League in batting average and hitting safely in his first sixteen games in the Single-A California League. From there, in 1984 he jumped two minor-league rungs to the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens. Although Tom Kelly, who was a minor-league coach at the time, told the front office that Puckett was ready to play in the majors right now, the Twins waited until May, when the Mud Hens were in Maine and the Twins were in southern California to call the prospect up officially. When Puckett’s connecting flight in Atlanta was delayed, he landed at Los Angeles International Airport several hours late. He took a cab to Anaheim, where the Twins were about to take the field against the Angels. With less than $20 in his pocket, Puckett had to beg for more change in the Twins’ clubhouse to pay the $83 cab fare. As they say, everyone has his price.

Due to the delay, Minnesota manager Billy Gardner had already scratched Puckett’s name from the starting lineup. After sitting that night Puckett made the most of his major-league debut as he singled four times the next day, becoming only the ninth big-league player in the twentieth century to break in with four hits. From there Puckett never looked back, hitting .296 his rookie season and leading the American League in hits in his fourth season, quickly becoming an integral member of the Twins’ World Series run in 1987. Standing only five-foot-eight, willing to chat up anybody about just about anything, Puckett became a crowd favorite, both home and away.

“Everywhere we went Kirby got as many cheers or sometimes more than the teams we were playing,” Greg Gagne said. “People loved to watch him play and just carry on.”

Brian Harper added, “Kirby was an unbelievable hitter. We would shake our heads at some of the things he would do. He loved to practice and work hard. And he also made it easy for TK to manage because he hustled all the time. Here was the star of the team and running everything out, so it was easy for the manager to make sure everybody else did their jobs.”

Kent Hrbek added, “When things aren’t going well, sometimes it’s tough to go to the ballpark. But when you’d walk into the park and Puck was there, you’d have to smile. When he was in a room he brightened it up.”

Back in the spring of 1991 I made deadline with the Henderson profile, and the inaugural issue of USA Today Baseball Weekly was on newsstands, with a scowling picture of Rickey sharing the cover with a smaller one of Bo Jackson and an even smaller one yet of President George “Poppy” Bush, whose Yale baseball teammates remembered him in our “Nostalgia” section.

From Arizona I returned east, spending the last two weeks of spring training in Florida. To this point my only experience covering baseball had been as the “swing man” for the San Francisco Examiner, switching back and forth between the local Giants and Athletics. Truth be told, I knew much more about the National League, but my initial beat for Baseball Weekly was the junior circuit. So the remaining weeks of spring training were more of a fact-finding mission, a quick effort to get up to speed on the teams in the American League.

On the recommendation of Paul White, the esteemed editor of Baseball Weekly, I flew into Tampa, drove down the Gulf Coast, and stopped by the White Sox’s longtime spring home in Bradenton and then the Texas Rangers’ complex in Charlotte, Florida. But Paul urged me to reach Fort Myers as soon as I could and check out the two teams there, the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins. He felt the Red Sox, who had won the American League East the previous year, would certainly contend again in our first season of publication. The Twins, however, were more of an afterthought after having finished last in the AL West, twenty-nine games behind Henderson’s Athletics.

I arrived in Fort Myers the following evening. After setting up at the local Holiday Inn I decided to swing by the Lee County Sports Complex, where the Red Sox and Twins played their spring home games that season. The place was brand new, as the Twins had moved over from antiquated Tinker Field in Orlando and were on their way to posting a 21-10-1 record that spring.

Even though no games were scheduled that evening, I heard the rat-tat-tat of a bat hitting a ball after I parked the rental car. Somewhere, somebody was taking some serious after-hours batting practice. No lights were on above the grandstand, and the noise came from deep inside the ballpark. Curious, I walked to the front gate, which was locked down tight. Yet just up the first-base line I found an open door. Following a dark corridor, I heard the smacks of a bat hitting horsehide.

Up ahead of me was a hint of light, which grew brighter as I drew closer. Eventually I turned the corner into a small room, where netting hung down from the ceiling and the whir of a pitching machine systematically propelled the next baseball to the far end of the batting cage. A half-dozen ballplayers were gathered around the far end, hooting and hollering as they took turns hitting in the cage. I recognized Kent Hrbek, Chili Davis, and Dan Gladden. Taking huge cuts, seemingly too big a swing for a guy his size, was Kirby Puckett.

“Who are you?” Puckett shouted at me, letting the next ball pass by, where it hit with a dull thud against the protective matting.

I told them I was with Baseball Weekly, the new national publication. Perhaps they had heard of it.

“I’ve seen it,” Hrbek said dismissively. “You have to do better than putting that piss-ant Rickey Henderson out front.”

“They’re going with the familiar faces,” Puckett said, labeling the next pitch into the mesh above my head. I wondered whether he was aiming for me.

“Same old, same old,” Davis complained.

“Don’t give the man a hard time,” Puckett said, ready to take another swing. “That’s probably who your bosses assigned you to do, ain’t that right?”

“Well, sort of.”

“Guys, I hate to say it,” Puckett continued. “But we’re nothing until we do something again.”

“We won it all in ’87,” Hrbek said.

“And finished dead last year,” Puckett said, lacing another line drive. “It’s like anything these days—we have to prove ourselves all over again.”

Puckett exited the batting cage and Hrbek took his place.

“But Baseball Weekly, man, you have to ask yourself something,” Puckett continued.

I shrugged, not sure what he was talking about.

“How many teams are taking BP at this hour?” Puckett asked.

“Probably none,” I replied.

“Exactly,” Hrbek said, tattooing the ball with the same efficiency that Puckett had demonstrated moments earlier.

The Twins began to laugh among themselves.

“We are sick pups,” Hrbek said. “No night life for us.”

“It’s because we love to rake, hit that ball,” Puckett said. “Look at my hands,” he said, holding up a paw. “Blister upon blister.”

For the most part Puckett loved to play this role—the bubbly, exuberant guy who was just happy to be here, playing baseball for a living. Ted Robinson, the Twins’ television play-by-play man in 1991, can recall only a few times when Puckett lowered his guard. One such instance occurred that season in New York, where the Twins played the Yankees soon after Los Angeles police had repeatedly beaten Rodney King .

“The ballclub had been told to ride the team bus, no cabs or subway, to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. It was a precaution after what happened in LA,” Robinson said. “On the field before the game Puckett was asked about the incident and he said, ‘Why they’d have to hit him so many times?’

“Kirby didn’t talk about serious politics that much. But I couldn’t help thinking he just gave us a small glimpse into his life. What it’s like to be a black man, a prominent black athlete, in this world.”

Years later Robinson said that Puckett was “one of those great half-full people,” meaning that “the glass was always half-full with him.”

Others sometimes weren’t as convinced. Ann Bauleke, who chronicled the Twins so well for the City Pages in Minneapolis during this period, recalled Puckett as being “most generous with his time. He spent hours with me.” Still, she added that the Twins’ star “always kept up a wall… . I don’t think he let many people in. He was big hearted and really did carry the team with his bat and his glove, and he was fun—quick-witted, a smart tease, not with the usual sophomoric stuff that can go on.”

Rick Aguilera remembered that Puckett was the first Twins player he met after coming over in the midseason trade with the New York Mets in 1989. The pitcher will always treasure that moment. “The Twins were on the road, playing the Yankees in the Bronx, and the game had already started by the time I got there,” Aguilera said. “I went in the clubhouse and got my uniform on. I walked down the runway to the dugout and stood there on the ground level, right where you have the two or three steps up to the dugout.

“I was standing there, watching the game, and Puckett had just grounded out. He ran back to the dugout, disgusted with himself, and then he saw me standing there. He walked down the steps and shook my hand, called me Aggie, and welcomed me to the Twins. I couldn’t believe it. Here was the face of the Twins. He had just grounded out, pretty upset with himself, and then he went out of his way to bring me on board.”

That’s one of things we expect from our heroes, isn’t it? A common touch that transcends the every day and can reach out to so many. Perhaps this is why some individuals step so easily into the hero’s role, whereas others battle for admiration and rarely receive much adulation or even respect.

About a four-hour drive away from the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis, north by northwest along Interstate 94, lies Fargo, North Dakota, where Roger Maris grew up. The slugger was born in Hibbing, Minnesota, the most famous native son after Robert Zimmerman, a.k.a. Bob Dylan. Whereas the enigmatic singer-songwriter and cultural icon adroitly kept fame at arm’s length and somebody like Kirby Puckett, at least when he was in uniform, seemed to revel in all the attention, Maris never really warmed to the flame of celebrity. The E Street Band guitarist and SiriusXM disc jockey “Little Steven” Van Zandt once said that the home run hero “may be textbook on how not to handle to fame.”

Early in Maris’s life the family moved to Fargo, and driving across the northern Plains, it can be easy to dismiss the region as flat and somewhat predictable—little more than a patchwork of September wheat and sugar beets. Yet down here at ground level the land can rise and fall like waves out on an inland sea. The wind echoes down from the Canadian border, rippling everything that stands in its path.

In 1991 Maris was given a measure of respect as baseball’s Statistical Accuracy Committee moved his sixty-one home run season of 1961, once and for all, ahead of Babe Ruth’s sixty home run campaign accomplished in 1927. Commissioner Ford Frick supposedly hung an asterisk on Maris’s accomplishment because it occurred in a season with twelve more games that Ruth’s. Actually, there was no real asterisk. The two magnificent seasons—sixty-one and sixty—were simply listed separately in the record book.

The debate assured that fans knew more about the record and supposed controversy than they ever did the man. No matter that Maris played in the World Series seven times or that he was a fine all-around player, as good with the glove as he was with a bat in his hands. Or that despite hitting sixty-one home runs in 1961, an accomplishment that some once again consider the all-time record for the most home runs in a season, dismissing the steroids era of McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, and others, Maris didn’t find his way into the Hall of Fame. In all likelihood he never will be enshrined in Cooperstown. That seemingly goes with the territory for a guy who was never comfortable in the spotlight, never as quick with a joke or a quote as such Yankee teammates as Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle.

To catch a glimpse of Maris, one must walk the wide streets of Fargo and talk with old friends and family members, who are sometimes as reluctant as he was to rehash the glory days and what could have been. Although this slugger retired to Florida and died in Houston at the age of fifty-one, he came home to be buried in a small cemetery on the northern edge of town. There he lies under a Manchurian ash tree, close to Kenny Hunt, his boyhood friend and another major leaguer from these parts. In the Holy Cross Cemetery Maris’s tombstone is in the shape of a ball diamond, with the inscription, “61 in ’61—Against All Odds.” “My heart has always been close to Fargo and North Dakota,” Maris once said.

A museum to the man can be found at the West Acres Shopping Center, a few miles from downtown Fargo. A seventy-two-foot-long, ten-foot-high showcase stands along the hallway to the parking lot, around the corner from the Sears store. The display includes Maris’s Gold Glove and Sultan of Swat awards. The West Acres mall had 2 million visitors a few years back. How many came to view the Maris memorabilia and watch the footage of him hitting his record-breaking home run and how many came to shop at the CVS remains anybody’s guess.

Born Roger Maras in Hibbing on September 10, 1934, the family changed the spelling of the family name when he was eighteen years old. “I was told it was because of the last two letters, A and S. You know how you put them together and how it sounds,” said Orv Kelly, who knew the home run hero in high school and, in later years, helped organize the annual charity golf tournament in Fargo that bears Maris’s name. “Nobody wants to be teased like that from the fans. The family changed it, and that was it.”

Don Gooselaw, another boyhood friend, remembered being in the Navy and searching for Maras, not Maris, in the Sporting News. “It threw me that I couldn’t find him,” Gooselaw said. “But when I came home on leave, somebody told me the family had changed the spelling. That was all I ever made of it.”

Once asked about the name change on a team questionnaire, Maris simply answered, “Immaterial.”

Maris once said that his brother, Rudy, really had “more enthusiasm about sports than I did.” Rudy Maris was a year older and Roger would tag along to sandlot games in the empty lots near the train tracks and roundhouses in the area. At Shanley High School the brothers played football, basketball, and baseball. Shanley ran a single-wing offense, patterned after the famed University of Michigan attack of the time. Rudy threw the ball and Roger ran it. In fact, Roger set the state record for five touchdowns in a single game, against Devils Lake in 1951. The scores came on an eighty-eight-yard run, ninety-yard kickoff return, forty-five-yard punt return, thirty-two-yard run, and a twenty-five-yard interception return. “God, he loved to hit,” Kelly recalled. “Rog was a cornerback [on defense], and nobody I ever saw could come up to the line [of scrimmage] as fast as him and just rip people. It got to the point where other teams simply stopped running the ball to his side of the field.”

Such play attracted the attention of legendary football coach Bud Wilkinson at the University of Oklahoma. Maris was offered a scholarship to play football for the Sooners, and he rode the bus for an entire day from Fargo down to Norman. One story has it that when no one from the university was there to meet him, Maris boarded the next bus back home. But several high school friends maintained that Maris did stay in Norman, at least for a day or so, before he decided more time in the classroom wasn’t for him.

Fresh out of high school Maris signed with the Cleveland Indians and broke in with the hometown Fargo-Moorhead Twins, where he was the rookie of the year. Four seasons later he reached the majors, playing in Cleveland and then in Kansas City. He was traded from the Athletics to the Yankees—one of fifty-nine players involved in fifteen different deals between the two ballclubs in the late 1950s. His first year in New York (1960), Maris hit 39 home runs, drove in 112 to lead the American League, and won his first Gold Glove. He and Mickey Mantle suddenly were the best one-two punch in baseball, with the Yankees reaching the World Series the next four seasons. But none of it could compare with the year Maris put together in 1961.

Incredibly, through the first ten games of that memorable season, Maris hit just .161. Mantle, the favorite of the New York fans and the front office, already had six home runs before Maris hit his first, the only one he would hit in the month of April. Management asked Maris whether he was having trouble at home. Maris told them no, and besides, it was none of their business. The front office had his vision checked. When the results showed nothing unusual, Maris was told that the organization didn’t care how many hits he got—after all, there were plenty of singles hitters in the game. No, what the brass wanted were homers, dingers, the precious long ball. Give us the sweet snap of the bat hitting that ball.

Maris got the message, and throughout the rest of the season he was remarkably consistent. Maris hit eleven home runs in May, fifteen in June, thirteen in July, eleven in August, and with the press now dogging his every move and hanging on his every word, he hit nine in September and one more to break the Babe’s record in October.

“The only peace I had by the end was in-between the lines,” Maris said years later. “As a ballplayer, I would be delighted to do it again. As an individual, I doubt if I could possibly go through it again.”

Back at the museum inside the West Acres Shopping Center, a boy stood with his father, taking in the showcase exhibit. The kid stared at the flickering black-and-white image of Maris circling the bases after his record-breaking hit, head down, running at a machine-like clip. The kid leaned in closer, fogging the glass.

If some careers are as regular as tomorrow’s dawn, then Maris’s was like a comet flashing overhead. For a few months it filled the night sky with brilliance, and then it was gone. In essence, Maris had several good seasons and one stellar one. His sixty-one home runs were twenty-two more than his next best season. In fact, Maris averaged less than twenty-three home runs over his twelve-year career. But what he accomplished, though it was so fleeting, had a certain solidness and even class to it. Too many ballplayers today seem to gaze a bit too long after the ball is sent soaring toward the fence, acting as though they were atop of the world when, of course, nobody enjoys such a vantage point for very long.

———

With his leaping catch against the Plexiglas and driving in two of the Twins’ first three runs, Kirby Puckett had certainly backed up his big talk before the game. But one thing he couldn’t do was pitch the ball. Slugger of the moment? Sure thing. A starting pitcher who could carry Minnesota far into the game? That fell to Scott Erickson on this night. The Twins, with only a three-man rotation, came into Game Six desperate for an extended performance from their starter. Kevin Tapani had gone only four innings in the last loss in Atlanta, and the Twins’ bullpen was extended, perhaps overly so.

Though Erickson was a shadow of his midseason self, the twenty-game winner went six-plus innings, surviving on breaking stuff, with help from some great defense behind him. Not only did Puckett make a leaping catch for the ages on Ron Gant’s blast, but left fielder Dan Gladden ran down Sid Bream’s opposite-field line drive with two on, and third baseman Scott Leius leaped to snare Brian Hunter’s line drive.

“This was the last game of the year for me,” Erickson said, “so I tried to go out there and give it all I had.”

Twins pitching coach Dick Such said Erickson “didn’t have his good stuff. But Junior [Ortiz] kept saying that his ball was moving, so we stayed with him.”

Puckett’s great catch made that decision easier. “It went farther than I thought it would,” Erickson said of Gant’s blast. “He hit a breaking ball. I was just happy the way it turned out, that Kirby caught it.”

Sometimes we don’t fully comprehend or acknowledge the power of time. We want to believe that it remains regimented, methodical, always logical in how it unfolds on the land. But often time runs away from us, speeding up in a heartbeat, gazing back at us like a mischievous child, and before we realize it the years have flown away from us. Perhaps that’s what happened to Kirby Puckett.

“You have to remember that for so long Minnesota was the land of the also-rans,” said John Rosengren, a local writer and Minnesota native. “From the North Stars to the early Twins to the Vikings, this was the land of second place. We were always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

“That changed when the Twins first won in 1987, and then it changed forever when they won again in 1991. And who was the guy at the center of both of those teams? That teddy bear of a guy, Kirby Puckett. The player who always had a smile for everybody.

“So when the sad, sad ending happens to Kirby Puckett it just breaks your heart that much more. Because here’s the guy who helped give us that wonderful feeling in 1987 and again in 1991, in particular his performance in Game Six when he almost single-handedly won it for us. When he’s the one who falls from grace, it really hurts.”

The way Puckett played that evening, the capacity crowd chanting his name, waving those white Homer Hankies, anybody with a heart would freeze-frame it all. In a perfect world this would be the lasting memory of a Hall of Fame player who so many in baseball loved. Unfortunately, this moment of greatness and grace ran away from us far too soon as well, leaving things in a jumbled mess between this night and the events to come.

Stew Thornley grew up in Minneapolis, becoming a noted baseball historian and the Twins’ official scorer. For him, Puckett and Mickey Mantle, another larger-than-life baseball star, share so many similarities, good and bad.

“Mantle was my hero growing up,” Thornley said, “just like Puckett was the hero for so many in this part of the country years later. I think that sometimes it’s as much the fault of the fans as it is the players when it comes to these things. We want to believe so much. That’s what we fell into with [Mark] McGwire and [Sammy] Sosa, before the revelations about steroids came out.

“Both Puckett and Mantle were far from perfect, as we found out. And sometimes the fans have difficulty accepting such transgressions, especially by their heroes.”

Thornley assembled a thorough, often-moving biography about Puckett for the Society for American Baseball Research. Near the end he wrote, “Learning the truth wasn’t easy for many, particularly those in Minnesota, and some had trouble reconciling the Puckett they had chosen to envision and the real Puckett—a human being with many virtuous qualities as well as some flaws.”

Thornley acknowledged those words were as much about his boyhood hero as the star he later covered. “I was thinking of Mantle,” he said. “How torn I was after reading Ball Four and hearing the other stories that showed that he was just another gifted athlete trying to be a man while playing a boy’s game.”

After the 1991 World Series Puckett would have other memorable times at the plate, leading the American League in hits in 1992 and in RBIs in 1994. But he would never again play in the postseason, and his career would end with the 1995 season. On September 28 Puckett was trying to drive in Chuck Knoblauch for his hundredth RBI of that season when a pitch from Cleveland right-hander Dennis Martinez sailed inside. It caught Puckett square in the face, breaking his jaw. This time his teammates ran from the dugout to find him lying in a pool of blood. “I still can’t believe how much he was bleeding,” Knoblauch said.

The next spring Puckett returned to action, and a week before Opening Day he batted against the Atlanta Braves once again, this time in Grapefruit League action. It would be Puckett’s last appearance as a player. The next morning he awoke with blurred vision. A black dot had appeared in his right eye, and the diagnosis was a central retina vein occlusion in that eye and glaucoma in both eyes. Despite three surgeries his vision didn’t return to the point at which he could hit big-league pitching anymore. As a result, Puckett’s career was over at the age of thirty-six.

On July 12, 1996, he made the announcement at the Metrodome that he was leaving baseball. “I never took the game for granted,” he said, a bandage over his eye. “I loved it and treated it with respect, but my life isn’t over. The world hasn’t come to an end.”

Puckett told his teammates that he loved them and would miss them. He added that he didn’t plan to put on a baseball uniform again.

“Considering what’s happened in the last few years, with the labor problems and everything else, the game can hardly afford to lose a player of Kirby’s ability and personality,” Twins manager Tom Kelly told the Los Angeles Times. “We saw how much he’ll be missed this year when we’d go into Boston or Baltimore or New York, and fans would have banners for him or would chant, ‘We want Kirby.’”

Scott Leius’s time with the Twins had ended the year before Puckett’s abrupt retirement. Now playing for Cleveland, he attended the sullen gathering as the Indians were the visiting team in Minneapolis that day. “It was a tough day,” he said. “But being there I realized how lucky I was. I played for three teams at the big-league level [the Twins, Indians, and Royals]. But there was something about that Minnesota team. Hrbek, TK, Kirby—I’d run through a wall for those guys.”

———

Some of the most famous home runs ever hit didn’t sound exactly right. They didn’t quite have that dry snap of a branch out in the woods as they left the bat. Mark McGwire’s sixty-second, which broke Roger Maris’s mark for the most homers in a season, came with a violent crack, leaving those in attendance wondering at first whether it had enough height to carry over the outfield fence. The same with Joe Carter’s World Series-winning home run in 1993. He didn’t start jumping for joy until the ball cleared the left-field fence.

If a hitter isn’t careful, he can fall in love with the sound of a well-hit ball. His mind can play tricks on him and make it sound better than it perhaps is. That drives veteran ballplayers crazy when they watch the superstars of today standing there, admiring a ball that doesn’t quite go out of the ballpark. For the sweet sound can be as illusory as any mirage in a desert.

When Puckett homered in Game Six he wasn’t sure he had really connected.

“The good ones you know right away,” he said years later. “But that one in the World Series wasn’t really a good one. We just happened to have close to sixty thousand people in the place, and when you get that many people in there it gets hot, and the ball tends to carry.”

Perhaps it had some help too. For years opposing teams grumbled about how the Twins’ long flies often carried to the seats whereas theirs died on the warning track. The Metrodome was air conditioned, and in 2003 Dick Ericson, the stadium’s longtime superintendent, confirmed that blowers behind home plate were sometimes turned on high when the Twins were at bat and throttled back when the opposing team stepped up. “It’s your home-field advantage,” Ericson told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “Every stadium has one.”

Between the sound of the bat and whatever he knew about the stadium’s internal workings, Puckett bolted out of the box in Game Six. “I was running hard because I thought it was going to hit the Plexiglas above the fence,” he said. “I was looking to get a double, or maybe it bounces off the glass and does something weird and I can get a triple. I don’t want an inside-the-parker. That’s too much work. But then it landed six or seven rows up, and that’s because there were so many people. They helped put it out.”

Any hitter will tell you that there’s a real Zen thing to hitting home runs. Try too hard and you’ll surely fail—pop one up to the outfield at best. But begin to relax, try to believe that it’s simply a science, and occasionally a lightning bolt shows itself in the heavens.

Puckett reached the majors as a leadoff hitter and was scared to death when Ray Miller, the Twins’ manager before Tom Kelly, began to bat him third in the Minnesota lineup. “I wasn’t a home run hitter,” Puckett said. “I told Ray that. I didn’t think I’d ever be a home run hitter. But he told me to relax and just hit the ball hard, and you know something? It was the strangest thing. The homers? They happened. They were there when I needed them.”

Our last conversation about the yin and yang of home runs took place in the autumn of 1998, almost seven years to the day after Puckett went deep against Atlanta, extending that epic World Series to a seventh and final game. We were in Puckett’s executive office with the Twins, overlooking downtown Minneapolis. On the wall hung framed newspaper front pages and colored drawings from the Twins’ glory days. We spoke excitedly about the 1998 recent season that saw McGwire and Sosa break Maris’s single-season home run record, how the whole shebang seemed almost too good to be true.

“I’m happy as an ex-player,” Puckett told me, “but mostly I was excited for everybody in the country who is a sports fan. My kids are taking about it. They’re eight and six, and before, they didn’t even watch baseball. But with this, they knew what was going on.

“Even Rip took a day off this season. He’s about the same age as I am, but he looks like he’s a hundred years old. I asked him this year, ‘Was it worth it?” And he said it was. But I said, ‘Look at you, man, you look terrible.’ For me, an off day was good. But Cal Ripken never saw it that way.

“It was all unbelievable. I know, after the strike in 1994 it was ugly at a lot of ballparks. If I didn’t sign autographs for everybody, somebody would yell, ‘Hey, Puckett, we pay your salary.’ But with this ’98 season, we’ve healed the past.”

Puckett’s discourse was equal parts jazz riff and state-of-the-union speech, and in listening to the tape of our conversation years later I still want to believe so much about this sweet spot in time. I remember it being a sunny day in Minneapolis, with the wind gusting out of the west, off the prairie. Not cold enough yet that you couldn’t go down to the local sandlot and see whether you could get a game going. I almost mentioned that to Puckett. Hey, let’s get out of here and see if kids were playing somewhere in town. Because as he spoke about hitting that home run in Game Six and just dingers in general, the words just tumbled out of his mouth, rapid-fire style, punctuated with “man” this and “man” that. A barrage that once prompted Sparky Anderson to ask, “Do you ever shut up?”

But, of course, when Puckett got on a roll nobody wanted him to shut up. For we were witnessing one of baseball’s wonders: a guy who could play the game and loved to do so too.

If I had known what was on the horizon when it came to Puckett and the revelations of his private life, I would have begged him to come with me. Let’s drive around town and look for the game or go down to the field here at the Metrodome and perhaps run around those bases again. For Puckett had made good on his vow. Except for a day or two in spring training, he hadn’t put on the uniform to coach again. Instead, he went to work in an office and was a public relations emissary as a team executive vice president. If we had known what would soon unfold, I would have asked, and I like to believe that Puckett would have said, “Sure thing, man. Let’s go see if we can scare us up a game. There’s got to be someplace a guy can still swing a bat in this town.”

———

Some of Puckett’s teammates believe he didn’t coach because his weight embarrassed him. An issue when he was playing, his weight got him when he ballooned up in retirement and refused the team’s offers to be a regular hitting coach in Florida or when the ballclub returned north for another season. After retirement he spent a lot of time fishing, a pursuit he had fallen in love with during his decade-plus in the Twin Cities. Sometimes he went with ex-teammates, like Kent Hrbek, but usually he kept company with guys outside his old circle of baseball friends.

To the public, Puckett sported an All-American image and marriage. He and his wife, Tonya, had adopted two children, a son, Kirby Jr., and a daughter, Catherine. Yet the couple divorced in 2002, shortly after Puckett was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Tonya Puckett recounted what she said was a history of domestic violence, including a phone call in which the superstar threatened to kill her. “I feel Kirby went out and played ball and made a living,” she told local writer Bob Sansevere. “My job was raising my children and being a wife and doing everything to build him up in the community and make it happen.”

After that bombshell, Laura Nygren stepped forward. She claimed that she had been Puckett’s mistress for eighteen years. “Kirby is not the person everyone thinks he is,” Nygren told the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press.

Then, in October 2002, Puckett was charged with false imprisonment, criminal sexual misconduct, and assault after an incident at a restaurant in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. A woman accused him of pulling her into the men’s room and groping her. The case went to trial, and although Puckett was found not guilty, his reputation would be forever tarnished. Sports Illustrated soon ran a story with the headline, “The Rise and Fall of Kirby Puckett.”

THE HUBERT H. HUMPHREY METRODOME

THE HUBERT H. HUMPHREY METRODOME

The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome hosted the Super Bowl and the NCAA Men’s

The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome hosted the Super Bowl and the NCAA Men’s Final Four, as well as the World Series. It was often loud and noted for its “Hefty bag” in right field and the Teflon-coated roof.

(NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY, COOPERSTOWN, NY)

ATLANTA-FULTON COUNTY STADIUM

Nicknamed “The Launching Pad,” this was where the Braves’ Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record in 1974. After opening in 1965, Atlanta Stadium soon became home to the first major-league team in the Deep South. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY, COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.)

Nicknamed “The Launching Pad,” this was where the Braves’ Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s

ATLANTA-FULTON COUNTY STADIUM

Few had more fun playing the game than Rickey Henderson.

Few had more fun playing the game than Rickey Henderson. Many considered him to be the top leadoff hitter of all time. When he retired, he was baseball’s career leader in stolen bases.

(JOSE LUIS VILLEGAS)

For a guy who didn’t want to be a reliever, Dennis eckersley made the most of opportunity

For a guy who didn’t want to be a reliever, Dennis Eckersley made the most of opportunity, finishing with 390 career saves. (JOSE LUIS VILLEGAS)

Tony La Russa won World Series titles with Oakland in 1989 and St

Tony La Russa won World Series titles with Oakland in 1989 and St. Louis in 2006 and 2011. (JOSE LUIS VILLEGAS)

In Oakland, pitching coach Dave Duncan, left, helped La Russa

In Oakland, pitching coach Dave Duncan, left, helped La Russa put together one of the top staffs in the game. (JOSE LUIS VILLEGAS)

The Hall of Fame’s board of directors voted unanimously in 1991 to bar ineligible individuals

The Hall of Fame’s board of directors voted unanimously in 1991 to bar ineligible individuals. That included Pete Rose, baseball’s all-time hit king. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY, COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.)

Jim Lefebvre, center, made the Seattle Mariners into a winner, but it wasn’t

Jim Lefebvre, center, made the Seattle Mariners into a winner, but it wasn’t enough to save his job as a record number of managers were fired in 1991. (JOSE LUIS VILLEGAS)

Oakland’s Jose Canseco tied with Cecil Fielder for home-run honors in 1991

Oakland’s Jose Canseco tied with Cecil Fielder for home-run honors in 1991 as each hit 44. (JOSE LUIS VILLEGAS)

Candice Wiggins with her siblings and father

Candice Wiggins with her siblings and father, Alan Wiggins. (THE WIGGINS FAMILY)

Alan Wiggins struggled to find a home in Baltimore after leaving San Diego.

Alan Wiggins struggled to find a home in Baltimore after leaving San Diego.

(NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY, COOPERSTOWN, NY)

In September 1991, baseball’s Statistical Accuracy Committee officially

In September 1991, baseball’s Statistical Accuracy Committee officially put Roger Maris’s sixty-one home-run season ahead of Babe Ruth’s sixty.

(NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME, COOPERSTOWN, NY)

Born in Minneapolis, first baseman Kent Hrbek became a

Born in Minneapolis, first baseman Kent Hrbek became a local hero to Twins fans. (JOSE LUIS VILLEGAS)

An aggressive hitter, Dan Gladden would score the winning run

An aggressive hitter, Dan Gladden would score the winning run in the 1991 World Series. (JOSE LUIS VILLEGAS)

A key offseason addition, Chili Davis settled in as Minnesota’s

A key offseason addition, Chili Davis settled in as Minnesota’s designated hitter. (JOSE LUIS VILLEGAS)

After being with five teams, Brian Harper arrived in Minnesota looking for a job

After being with five teams, Brian Harper arrived in Minnesota looking for a job. He ended up becoming the full-time catcher. (MINNESOTA TWINS)

Closer Rick Aguilera solidified the Twins’ bullpen and ranked among the best

Closer Rick Aguilera solidified the Twins’ bullpen and ranked among the best relievers of his era. (MINNESOTA TWINS)

With Gary Gaetti gone to the California Angels, Scott Leius helped fill the void for Minnesota at third base.

With Gary Gaetti gone to the California Angels, Scott Leius helped fill the void for Minnesota at third base.

(MINNESOTA TWINS)

Kirby Puckett surprised himself by being able to hit for power after reaching the major leagues

Kirby Puckett surprised himself by being able to hit for power after reaching the major leagues. He had friends seemingly everywhere he went.

(JOSE LUIS VILLEGAS)

With one swing of the bat, Puckett joined the ranks of those who have homered with everything on the line in the World Series.

With one swing of the bat, Puckett joined the ranks of those who have homered with everything on the line in the World Series.

(MINNESOTA TWINS)

Puckett’s career ended prematurely after the 1995 season due to irreversible retina damage

Puckett’s career ended prematurely after the 1995 season due to irreversible retina damage in his right eye. (MINNESOTA TWINS)

Rookie Chuck Knoblauch took over for the Twins at second base in 1991

Rookie Chuck Knoblauch took over for the Twins at second base in 1991.

(MINNESOTA TWINS)

The addition of Scott Erickson rounded out the Twins’ starting

The addition of Scott Erickson rounded out the Twins’ starting rotation in 1991. (MINNESOTA TWINS)

Veteran Greg Gagne would join with Knoblauch to turn a fake DP for the ages in the 1991

Veteran Greg Gagne would join with Knoblauch to turn a fake DP for the ages in the 1991 World Series. (MINNESOTA TWINS)

Tom Glavine reached the twenty-victory plateau for the first time in 1991 and was named the

Tom Glavine reached the twenty-victory plateau for the first time in 1991 and was named the National League’s Cy young winner. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY, COOPERSTOWN, NY)

Terry Pendleton, the National League’s MVP in 1991, still contends that the Braves

Terry Pendleton, the National League’s MVP in 1991, still contends that the Braves were the best team in baseball in 1991. (JOSE LUIS VILLEGAS)

David Justice supplied power for the Atlanta Braves’ attack, helping lead the ballclub

David Justice supplied power for the Atlanta Braves’ attack, helping lead the ballclub to the first of fourteen consecutive visits to the postseason.

(JOSE LUIS VILLEGAS)

The Braves’ Mark Lemke saved his best at-bats for postseason play. He remains a favorite in Atlanta.

The Braves’ Mark Lemke saved his best at-bats for postseason play. He remains a favorite in Atlanta.

(JOSE LUIS VILLEGAS)

Pitcher John Smoltz turned to mind visualization to right his career, and in doing so he assured that

Pitcher John Smoltz turned to mind visualization to right his career, and in doing so he assured that Atlanta would have arguably the best rotation in baseball.

(JOSE LUIS VILLEGAS)

In building his media empire, Ted Turner transformed the Braves into

In building his media empire, Ted Turner transformed the Braves into “America’s team.”

(NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY, COOPERSTOWN, NY)

Dan Gladden’s hard slide upended Braves catcher Greg Olson and set the

Dan Gladden’s hard slide upended Braves catcher Greg Olson and set the tone for a no-holds-barred World Series.

(MINNESOTA TWINS)

When Twins first baseman Hrbek became entangled with the Braves’ Ron Gant, the umpires found

When Twins first baseman Hrbek became entangled with the Braves’ Ron Gant, the umpires found themselves back in the postseason spotlight.

(MINNESOTA TWINS)

No lead was safe in the 1991 World Series, which saw four walk-off endings and

No lead was safe in the 1991 World Series, which saw four walk-off endings and three games go to extra innings. (MINNESOTA TWINS)

Atlanta’s baseball nickname, the Braves, brought out demonstrators at

Atlanta’s baseball nickname, the Braves, brought out demonstrators at both World Series venues. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Some protesters put together this banner in a response to the Braves’ nickname.

Some protesters put together this banner in a response to the Braves’ nickname.

(MINNESOTA HISTORICAL SOCIETY)

The controversy about the Braves’ nickname only made many in Atlanta cheer louder as this was the season when the

The controversy about the Braves’ nickname only made many in Atlanta cheer louder as this was the season when the Tomahawk Chop took hold. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Mark Lemke was safe at the plate in Game Four, which knotted the World Series at two

Mark Lemke was safe at the plate in Game Four, which knotted the World Series at two games apiece. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The Braves prided themselves on their rally caps, which they felt had helped them turn the

The Braves prided themselves on their rally caps, which they felt had helped them turn the tide throughout this season. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Several costly mistakes, especially in games Six and Seven, left the Braves wondering what could

Several costly mistakes, especially in games Six and Seven, left the Braves wondering what could have been (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Nobody had a bigger postseason than the Twins’ Kirby Puckett. After being named the MVP of the American League

Nobody had a bigger postseason than the Twins’ Kirby Puckett. After being named the MVP of the American League Championship Series, he was interviewed by announcer Jim Kaat. (MINNESOTA TWINS)

Minnesota workhorse Jack Morris pitched ten scoreless innings in Game Seven

Minnesota workhorse Jack Morris pitched ten scoreless innings in Game Seven and was named the 1991 World Series MVP.

(MINNESOTA TWINS)

Looking back on things, Brian Harper wished that Puckett had stayed closer to the game after being forced to abruptly go to the sidelines because of his vision problems. The catcher remembered being “emotionally done” when he hung up his uniform in 1995. “But Kirby’s situation was different from any of the rest of us,” Harper said. “He woke up one day, and his playing career was over. Just like that, it was over. He sure would have had more good years before the glaucoma. That had to be hard for him.

“I think he would have eventually gone into coaching. Obviously, he was struggling with a lot of things. Still, I had heard he was going to get with a nutritionist for his weight. He was ready to turn things around.”

Chili Davis wasn’t sure coaching—somehow staying in the game—would have helped. “That’s tough to say,” he said. “The only thing I wish for him is that he was peaceful when he went. As far as hanging in the game? He brought so much to the game already. I mean the man did enough.

“I’m glad he’s in the Hall. He belongs in the Hall. He went through a couple of ordeals in Minnesota after his playing days ended. He had moved to Arizona to try and start his life over again.”

Ron Gardenhire added, “Puck would have been great as a roving instructor. He would have enjoyed going to other cities, talking to everybody, from the outfielders on how to play the ball to talking to base runners about what to look for. The way he was I don’t know if he could have tempered himself to coaching every day with the same outfit. He was so full of life and always going, always trying to see what was next. The grind of a full-time coaching for him? That would have been too hard for him, I’m afraid.”

In March 2006 Puckett suffered a stroke and died soon afterward at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. He was forty-five years old.

Several of his closest friends in baseball—Davis, Dan Gladden, Ken Griffey Jr. among them—gathered at the hospital and said their goodbyes, even though Puckett was on a respirator by that point.

“By then he couldn’t hear us anymore,” Gladden recalled. “Everything was working, except the mind was gone. But we were able to say good-bye—each of us in our own special way.”

Davis added, “The only thing I wish is that I’d had the opportunity to spend more time with him after he moved down from Minnesota, before he passed. I talked him to him right around the Super Bowl that year. Dan Gladden was in town, and we called him up, and we were going to go by and see him, but he said he was busy… . It never happened, and the next thing I know Gladden is calling me, telling me that Puck had had the stroke.”

A public memorial service for Puckett drew fifteen thousand to the Metrodome, the site of his biggest moment in baseball. At first Torii Hunter was scheduled to speak, along with Kent Hrbek, Tom Kelly, Al Newman, Harmon Killebrew, Cal Ripken, and Andy MacPhail. But in the end Hunter had to beg off. “What do they want me to do?” Hunter said. “Cry?”

Garth Brooks, a huge Puckett fan, couldn’t even bring himself to attend. The country music star wasn’t sure he could make it through the event without breaking down as well.

Only a few years before, Major League Baseball had wanted to eliminate the Twins as a major-league franchise through contraction. The former superstar had visited the state legislature, urging support for a new downtown ballpark. With Puckett’s death, efforts for a new stadium soon gained momentum.

“Over the last week I’ve found myself closing my eyes and replaying all the times I spent with Kirby,” Ripken said, “whether it was on the field [or] off the field. I found myself replaying the emotions over and over again. You know what happened? I started to feel better.”

When it was Tom Kelly’s turn to speak, he asked all of his former players in attendance to stand with him during his remarks. Their ranks included Jack Morris, who was seated next to Rod Carew.

Certainly there were tears, but there was laughter too. MacPhail urged that the crowd consider the memorial service as a celebration too. In that spirit, video clips were shown on the Jumbotron, including Puckett’s 1997 appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, in which he read the show’s nightly Top Ten. On that evening it listed the ways his name was mispronounced. Among those were Englepuck Kirbydink, The Puckett Formerly Known as Kirby, Turkey Bucket, and even Kent Hrbek.

The real Kent Hrbek couldn’t help but smile at this. “The people of Minnesota are losing an icon,” Hrbek later said. “Paul Bunyan was big. Puck’s as big as Paul Bunyan around here. He’s still right alongside him.”

Outside of the Twin Cities the baseball world briefly came to a stop that day. The White Sox’s Ozzie Guillen watched the ceremony on television and wept. “I think Dave Winfield said the right thing,” Guillen said. “[Puckett] was the only player in the history of baseball everybody loved.”

Years later Hrbek joked about how so many cats and dogs and kids in this part of the world were named Kirby. Hrbek may have been a native son, a guy who went on to stardom in his hometown, but he played second fiddle to Puckett.

“And I loved every minute of it,” he said.

———

All of it—the promise, the catch, the triple—would be remembered as prologue to Kirby Puckett’s at-bat against Charlie Leibrandt in the bottom of the eleventh inning.

When that changeup rose up in the zone, Puckett did just enough to drive it over the fence. Near second base, as he circled the diamond, Puckett pumped his right arm several times, yelling “Yeah, yeah!” His home run trot became instantly as memorable as Carlton Fisk’s sixteen years earlier in another Game Six.

“I figured it was out because I always watch the outfielders,” said Ron Gardenhire, who was the Twins’ third-base coach on this evening. “They were following it, but they weren’t catching up to it. Then you start looking at the fans standing up, raising their eyes, and I was just kind of backing down the line after Puck hit it.

“The more I watched, the more I started to get myself in fist-pump mode. I was getting myself in line to shake his hand.”

Chili Davis waited with the rest of teammates at home plate, watching Puckett round the bases, almost in disbelief by what had transpired.

“I don’t care what people may say about Kirby Puckett these days, but I will always have a place in my heart for him,” Davis said decades later. “He’s my favorite player, my favorite teammate—ever. No ifs, ands, or buts. The guy was very giving. He livened up the locker room every day he was there. You’d never really see him have a bad day. If I said, ‘Puck, I need something.’ He’d say, ‘Dog, it’s in my locker. Get it. Take what you need.’”

Rounding third base, the Metrodome now complete bedlam, Puckett saw Gardenhire, who had both hands raised in the air. Puckett slapped them and continued on. “We were about as happy and as pumped up as you can be,” Gardenhire recalled.

The Twins players poured out of the dugout, forming a half-circle at home plate. Backup catcher Junior Ortiz was there to greet Puckett, with Dan Gladden and Kent Hrbek right behind him, and Davis ready to hug his friend. When the slugger touched home plate the Twins gathered around him, forming a pile of humanity that briefly concealed their star player from view. When Puckett broke away from the crowd, walking toward the dugout, he raised his fist again in the air. After slapping hands again with Ortiz, he greeted hitting coach Terry Crowley and then hugged manager Tom Kelly.

Game Six remains a testament to Puckett’s ability to rise to the occasion as a ballplayer. His triple back in the first inning drove in Chuck Knoblauch with the game’s first run, followed by his leaping catch up against the Plexiglas, robbing Ron Gant of extra bases only a few feet away from where he would later put his game-winner. With that home run Puckett joined Carlton Fisk, Dusty Rhodes, Tommy Henrich, Eddie Mathews, Kirk Gibson, and Bill Mazeroski as hitters who won a World Series game with one swing of the bat. In addition, he became the first player to collect a sacrifice fly, a triple, and a home run in a World Series game.

“I never hit a game-winning home run,” Puckett told a group of reporters on the field after the game. “Not that I can remember. Other guys have done it all around here—Dan Gladden, Herbie. I couldn’t believe it. I finally did something I said I was going to do.”

After midnight, deep in the bowels of the Metrodome, Braves manager Bobby Cox was questioned about using starting pitcher Charlie Leibrandt in relief. “Why not Charlie?” Cox replied. “He’s faced Puckett before. He keeps the ball down. He’s a fifteen-game winner. Charlie just got a ball up and Puckett hit it hard.”

Braves catcher Greg Olson remembered hoping that when the ball left Puckett’s bat it would glance off the fence and somehow stay in play. “But I had a feeling as soon as he hit it there was going to be a Game Seven.”

Puckett finally made it up the long stairwell from the field to the Twins’ clubhouse. Once he was there he sat down in front of his locker, shaking his head. “Man, oh, man,” he said. “I don’t believe it.”

Gene Larkin remembered Jack Morris, who was scheduled to be Minnesota’s starting pitcher in Game Seven, saying, “Now it’s my turn to do my job. Kirby did his job.”

In fact, Morris had already set the stage for Game Seven by telling the media, “In the immortal words of the late, great Marvin Gaye, ‘Let’s get it on.’”

“After Game Six, when we went back in the clubhouse, we were at ease,” Gladden recalled, “because we looked over and there was Jack Morris, and you could tell that he was already getting his game face on. You just knew he was going to pitch us a great ballgame the next night.”

Well past midnight, after the television cameras had thinned out in the home clubhouse, CBS’s Pat O’Brien drifted by Puckett’s locker. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a roll of greenbacks and jokingly held them out for the Twins’ star.

“There’s more where that came from,” O’Brien said.

“Well, give it here,” Puckett said, playing along with the gag.

With a smile, O’Brien slid the cash back into his pocket. On this evening it became the only play Puckett let slip away.

For the first time since 1987, when the Twins defeated the St. Louis Cardinals, the World Series was going seven games. For those watching at home on television, many of them could close their eyes and still picture Kirby Puckett swinging for the fences against Charlie Leibrandt and then running hard out of the batter’s box, hustling as he rounded the first-base bag. Only when the Twins’ star saw the ball somehow fall into stands did he raise his arms toward the heavens in celebration.

Fans would long remember what had happened this evening. How one individual, arguably the best-known ballplayer on either team, had risen to the occasion. And the best part? This Series still had one more game to play. As announcer Jack Buck told the national television audience, “And we will see you tomorrow night.”

———