By Ryan Kalmoe aka SWOWannabe

I still remember sitting on my hideous fake brown leather couch watching Game 6 of the 1991 World Series between the Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves. With the game tied and going into extra innings and the Twins’ championship hopes on the line, my father was more than willing to let a much younger me stay up well past my bed time to watch the end of the game. I was 6 at the time, and starting to doze off…but I managed to wake up for the bottom of the 11th inning. With a 2-1 count, Charlie Leibrant delivery was promptly rerouted by Kirby Puckett into the seats in left field. I was ecstatic, bewildered, and tired, all at once. Jack Buck promptly called the game with his now-famous line, “And we’ll see you tomorrow night!” The image of Kirby rounding second base with his fist pumped in the air is one I default to whenever I think of baseball. The Twins went on to win the Series in game 7. Puckett’s performance that year was nothing short of brilliant. 1991 was the first year I can remember my father bringing home baseball cards after work, along with a Twins binder and we’d go through the cellophane-wrapped cards looking for Twins players, and especially Kirby Puckett.

Flash forward to September 28th, 1995. A wild pitch by Dennis Martinez struck Kirby in the jaw and broke it. Despite having an impressive display during spring break, the Twins’ beloved outfielder woke up on March 28th. diagnosed with glaucoma, Puckett was placed on the disabled list for the first time in his career. Twins Territory collectively held its breath for an excruciating three and a half months until finally, on July 12th, 1996, Kirby Puckett announced his retirement at the age of 36. I remember going over to my grandmother’s that day. My dear old grandmother, still more enamored with Kirby than any other person to this day, and I talked about the unfortunate turn of events, what this meant for our Twins. Several tears were shed by all, even my aunt and cousin, both whom had the “hots” for Chuck Knoblauch but still loved Kirby.

Like all good things, Puckett’s career had come to an end. While I may be biased, his baseball prowess was unmatched by any other player in his time. He needed only twelve short seasons to become the Twin’s all-time leader in career hits, runs, doubles, and total bases. Kirby boasts 10 All-Star game appearances, 6 Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers, an AL batting title, an AL season RBI leader, a Branch Rickey Award and Roberto Clemente Award. His success on the field, as indicated by the latter two awards, did not prevent him from giving back to the community so generously with his time and finances. He had a niceness about him that can only be described as the famed “Minnesota Nice.” In short, there simply aren’t many players who were as talented at baseball and all-around nice guys as Kirby was.

While I’ve grown to admire other ball players since my childhood, I suspect there will never be one that will surpass Kirby as my all time favorite. Between having watched the magical 1991 World Series, witnessed Kirby play in person at the Metrodome before his retirement, and his presence in my childhood collection of Twins baseball cards, there is simply too much nostalgia to replace any possible hype that a player could generate. With the recent passing of my father, I’ve spent a lot of time reminiscing on my childhood. That magical night and seeing Kirby pump his fist in the air gives me chills to this very day. One of the highlights of going to the beautiful Target Field to watch my beloved Twins play is passing by Gate 34 and seeing Kirby immortalized in a statue. I can’t wait to take my children to Target Field some day. We’ll go past Kirby and I’ll point and say, “That’s Kirby Puckett, one of the greatest baseball players to play the game. When I was your age I got to see him play.” I want to tell them the stories of what made Kirby so great, how he worked hard both on and off the field.

Yes, all ball players must retire at some point. For most, it may be an agonizing decision to hold that press conference at the beginning of the year. I wish Kirby had been given that opportunity. He was not the first, and nor will he be the last who’s career met an untimely end. His name and story reminds us of other greats such as Lou Gehrig and Roberto Clemente. It is right to honor those players whom are able to select when they retire from baseball, but we can’t ever forget the ones who’s careers and lives were cut short.