"Let us go forth a while, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our closed rooms...
The game of ball is glorious."

--Walt Whitman

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Distant Heroes

In 1987, I was living in Texas, where there is no sport but football. And I don't like football. I knew baseball existed, having been raised by a fan, but I didn't care.

In 1991, I was living in Minnesota, buried up to my eyeballs in college studies and college life. I was only peripherally aware of the hubbub around the World Series.

In 1996, when glaucoma forced Kirby Puckett to retire from baseball at the age of 35, I saw his farewell speech on TV. I remember being impressed with his humility and positive attitude. I daresay I didn't give the whole business another thought until years later.

I came to baseball and the Twins much later, in 1998, when the glory of two World Series championships had faded into the obscurity of fifth place in the division. There was little if anything left of that team of champions in Minnesota, and if there were hints of what was to come in 2001-2004, I missed them. I was hooked, though, on the game and on my horrible, loveable, anonymous team.

But you don't follow the Twins without hearing about Kirby Puckett. The man, the myth, the legend. The Catch. The Homer. "Climb on my back." The Farewell.

Books, replays and restrospectives substitute for personal experience. Heroes are not heroes only when their deeds are witnessed firsthand; there is a cultural memory within every tribe of baseball fans, where their legends are recorded, polished and passed on to newcomers.

He played twelve major-league seasons, all with the Twins. He could have left for more money, much more, but he didn't. He refused millions with a lighthearted grin and said he was a Twin, and that was that.

Ten All-Star games. Six Gold Gloves. Two World Championships. A career batting average of .318. A smile that could light up the world. And a defective right eye that ended it all too soon.

In 2001, when Kirby was inducted into the Hall of Fame, I had been so steeped in his mythology that I celebrated as if I had witnessed him in his heyday. I was as convinced as any lifelong fan that few had ever deserved that honor more.

In 2002, the feet of clay were finally revealed. Nothing was proven in a court of law, but so much was said by so many people that it became impossible to believe it was all made up from whole cloth. It was also impossible not to wonder if the sudden loss of his playing career had somehow twisted him. His waistline expanded as his legend diminished, and it seemed certain that for all his trademark smiles he was an unhappy man.

He may have been picking up the pieces. Friends say he had lost weight and was taking better care of himself. He was engaged to be married early in the summer. He was 45 years old, with a lifetime yet to live, and he was felled by a stroke.

Kirby: going, going...gone. Too soon, too far.

I like to picture a baseball field, a vast green diamond under a cloudless sky, where the game never ends and the crowd is always cheering. And on this field there is no glaucoma, no scandal, no human frailty in mind or in body. There is only the crack of the bat and then loping across that verdant center field comes a man wearing #34. And he is laughing as he jumps, lifts his glove toward the cerulean sky and, easy as breathing, steals a home run.

3 rejoinders:

Jeff A sounded off...

Very well said.

SBG sounded off...

Good perspective.

bubblemint sounded off...

Just when I thought I had no tears left...

Beautifully written...

Thank you.