Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Minnesota's Icon

Growing up in Minnesota I was the odd kid that didn’t like the Twins. My dad loved the Yankees and so I adopted that love. While I didn’t like Twins like Kent Hrbek, Frank Viola and Gary Gaetti, Kirby Puckett was different. He was unique.

Kirby ascended to the major leagues in the 80’s, in a time when people still looked up to athletes as role models. Minnesota did not boast many celebrities or heroes to take pride in. The Vikings hadn’t had a star since Tarkenton and Alan Page, the North Stars had no transcending stars and the Timberwolves didn’t exist. No player held national prominence or created a winning atmosphere in the Twin Cities.

Kirby was an All-Star by his third year and in 1987 his fourth season, helped the Twins win their first World Series. The first professional sports title since the Minneapolis Lakers in 1954.

He wasn’t just another star athlete with great success. He was Kirby, instantly identified with Minnesota, no less than Prince or later Jesse. He didn’t look like a baseball player; his pudgy physique suited a line cook. His high leg kick gave boys something to imitate. His upbeat attitude and smile just added to his icon status. He gave local fans someone to cheer for, take pride in, and claim ownership. “That’s Kirby, he’s our guy.”

His signature moment came in the 1991 World Series with his Game 6 walk off home run off Charlie Leibrandt. I was at the game, and it’s still my favorite sports memory. I didn’t truly become a Twins fan until later, but I was definitely a Kirby fan. It was the most amazing sports scene I’ve been witness to.

After 1992 Minnesotans feared the worst. Kirby was a free agent and many assumed a larger team like Boston would pay too much for Kirby. Baseball salaries began to explode and Kirby could cash in. How could anyone blame him? He was one of the best players in the game and deserved a big payoff. How could the Twins afford him? Instead he stayed in Minnesota for less money, instantly enlarging his legend in his adopted hometown.

After retiring early, it appears Puckett was no longer Kirby. Without baseball things turned ugly. To the national perspective, this is what most people remember because it’s the most recent news about Puckett. For Minnesotans and baseball fans, it is a different focus. Kirby is the reason I'm a Twins fan today. He was our guy.