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Kirby Puckett

Kirby Puckett (born March 14, 1961) was one of the best, and most popular, Major League Baseball players of the 1980s and early 1990s.

An unheralded player in high school, Puckett showed no signs of being a great player until after he had left the team at Bradley University[?] in 1980. He decided to give baseball a second chance a year later, after catching the eye of scouts while playing recreational ball in Chicago. He moved on to Triton (ill.) College and was subsequently drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the first round of the 1982 baseball draft.

At the time, Puckett was a slap hitter and outstanding defensive center fielder with almost no power. He used those skills to hit a whopping .382 in his first professional season, with Elizabethton (Tenn.) in 1982, and then rocketed to the major leagues in less than two years, earning promotion to the Twins on May 8, 1984.

He was one of the league's best rookies in 1984, batting .296 and leading all American League center fielders in baserunner kills, with 16. He had a similar season in 1985, when he played every game the Twins played and batted .288.

In his third season, Puckett burst into stardom. It all began in the off-season, when he worked with hitting coach Tony Oliva[?] on driving the ball for distance. Despite his small stature (5-8), Puckett had the immense strength and quick wrists of a power hitter. In 1986, he added this to his game, blasting 31 home runs, raising his average to .328 and winning the first of his six Gold Glove Awards[?] for outstanding defensive play.

In 1987, Puckett led the Twins to their first championship in the World Series after batting .332 with 28 home runs and 99 RBI in the regular season. He did even better in the seven-game Series upset of the St. Louis Cardinals, batting a whopping .357.

The Twins won even more games in 1988, though they finished second in their division to the powerful Oakland Athletics. Puckett had his best season, hitting .356 with 24 home runs and 121 RBI, to finish third in the MVP balloting for a second straight season.

He won the American League batting championship in 1989 with a mark of .339, making him the first righthanded batter to win the title in eight years. He continued to play well in 1990, but the Twins slipped to last place in their division.

In 1991, the Twins got back on the winning track and Puckett led the way by batting .319, eighth in the league. Minnesota surged past Oakland in midseason and captured the division title, then upset the favored Toronto Blue Jays in five games in the American League playoffs. Puckett batted .429 with two home runs and six RBI in the playoffs to win MVP honors.

The World Series which followed is considered by many to be the best ever. Both the Twins and their opponent, the Atlanta Braves, had finished last the year before winning their league pennant, something that had never been done before. Going into Game 6, the Twins trailed three games to two and had to win to stay alive. They held off a late Atlanta rally to go into extra innings, and in the bottom of the 11th, Puckett hit a dramatic home run off Charlie Leibrandt to keep his team alive. The next night, they won 1-0 in 10 innings for their second World Championship.

The Twins contended for one more season and then began to slip, but Puckett never did. In 1994, he won his first league RBI title by driving in 112 in just 108 games, and he was having another brilliant season in 1995 when felled by a beanball which broke his jaw in late September.

He recovered fully and returned to the Twins for spring training in 1996. But on March 28, after tattooing the Grapefruit League for a .360 average, he woke up unable to see out of his right eye. He was diagnosed with glaucoma, and several surgeries in the months to come were unable to save his vision in the eye. On July 12, 1996, Puckett announced his retirement from baseball. He was 35 years old. His lifetime batting average of .318 was the highest of any right-handed batter since Joe DiMaggio.

The Twins retired his number 34 in 1997, and in 2001, he became the third youngest man ever elected to the United States Baseball Hall of Fame, going in at age 40 in his first year of eligibility.

Quotes

"I was told I would never make it because I'm too short. Well, I'm still too short, but I've got 10 All-Star games, two World Series championships, and I'm a very happy and contented guy. It doesn't matter what your height is, it's what's in your heart." -- at his 1996 retirement press conference.



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