TAMPA, Fla. — There is a man. He does exist. A man who makes trends meet. A man for all reasons. A man who tickles the fancy of nearly every type of sports fan in this scattershot country, and that’s a lot of tickling. There is a man. There is Kirby Puckett.
Get ready for him. He is a bit of everything. An inner-city kid playing baseball in Minnesota. A weight lifter with a weakness for dessert. A .292 hitter whom children want to hug ’cause he’s so cute. Cute? He is the crossover artist. The singer who hits on five charts simultaneously. The foot in every door. The next superstar. Kirby Puckett.
It’s obvious. Isn’t it obvious? Just think like an advertising exec. Ask yourself this: “What’s in?”
Short is in, right? Spud Webb and his dunking? Phil Collins and his Grammies? Kirby Puckett is short. He’s barely 5-feet- 8. When he lines up next to teammate Kent Hrbek, he looks as if he’s fitting Hrbek for new pants.
“Did the other kids pick on you for being so small?” he is asked.
“They called me Puck for short,” he says.
See? Puck for short. He’s in.
What else is in? Overweight is in. Refrigerator Perry? John Madden?
Kirby Puckett is overweight, too. Came to spring training weighing 215, or 40 pounds above playing weight. Watching him in center field today is like watching a very mobile piggy bank.
“Aren’t you concerned?” he is asked.
“You shouldn’t come to spring training at the right weight,” he says, “or you might lose weight and be too thin by the time the season starts.”
Short and overweight. Good. Good. Something to smile about
Let’s talk smiles. A good smile is definitely in. Isiah Thomas? Magic Johnson? Mary Lou Retton?
Kirby Puckett has a great smile. It owns 50 percent of his facial stock. He smiles in the on-deck circle. He smiles at the catcher and the umpires. He smiles when he poses for pictures, which he doesn’t mind doing, and which is also very in.
Or rags-to-riches. Rags-to-riches is always in, especially in America. Horatio Alger. Daddy Warbucks. Villanova.
Kirby Puckett is rags-to-riches. He grew up hard on the wrong side of Chicago, the youngest of nine children. Played stickball on 44th and State streets — “from sunup to sundown,” he says, “or until I ran out of brothers to pitch to me” — and saw his first real field when he joined a semi-pro team at age 15. He was discovered by accident when a Twins scout went to watch his son play college baseball and noticed Puckett on the other squad.
Now Puckett, 25, is a starter who led the Twins last year in batting average (.288), runs (199), hits (80), stolen bases (21) and games played
(161). And the major league managers voted him the Outfielder With the Best Arm along with Boston’s Dwight Evans.
“Do you ever think about that fateful college game?” he is asked.
“Yeah, I think I’m glad that guy was out there in the stands,” he says.
Rags-to-riches. Great arm. Sense of humor.
Very in. Speed, strength and the name
Weight lifting. Weight lifting is in. Everybody lifts weights now. Grandmothers lift weights. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sly Stallone. Ivan Drago.
Kirby Puckett lifts weights. His upper torso is a piece of granite — underneath a few late-night pizzas — and he can bench-press 325 pounds.
How about speed? We love speed. Edwin Moses. Chuck Yeager. Speed is in.
Kirby Puckett has speed. Stole 21 bases last year. Says he ran the 40 in 4.3 in college. He motors around the outfield like a Toro gone haywire, his little legs moving like rapid-fire toothpicks.
Speed. Strength. And if all that’s not enough, there’s the name. A great baseball name. Kirby Puckett. Sounds like something off a raft in a Huckleberry Finn story. Real heartland America. Davy Crockett. Kirby Puckett. Yeah.
So there it is. A Can’t Miss Kid. Got the short vote, the smile vote, the pumping iron vote, the speed vote, the weight- watchers’ vote, the nickname vote, the managers’ vote.
“I don’t know about all that,” he says, dressing for another game. “All I know is this is all I ever wanted to do. Baseball, baseball, baseball. That’s why I don’t mind signing autographs. I’m honored. From the time I was playing wall ball on State Street and we had the little box drawn on the wall for a strike zone, this is all I ever thought about. Playing baseball.”
OK. Toss in the Dream Come True vote.
Which is very in these days, by the way. CUTLINE Kirby Puckett