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Kirby Puckett: He Touched ’Em All

September 8, 1996 GMT

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ For a few minutes Saturday night, Kirby Puckett’s farewell party threatened to end just like his career: Spoiled too soon by an unexpected complication.

Forced to retire July 12 because of glaucoma that has left him totally blind in his right eye, Puckett was forced into silence for several minutes Saturday when the Metrodome sound system failed.

``That’s a sign right there,″ Puckett said when the sound came back. ``I just want to say, `What happened?‴

His premature departure this summer left all of baseball asking the same question.

Puckett was among the game’s brightest stars throughout his 12-year career, and is the most beloved sports figure in Minnesota history _ maybe even the state’s most cherished hero in any realm.

His retirement left a void for a team, a state and a game that adore him, but it cannot erase the memories he created, many of which were relived Saturday night.

There was far more celebration than sorrow during the ceremony, which preceded the Twins’ game against California and drew a sellout crowd of 51,011, the largest since the 1993 season opener. Puckett even reprised Lou Gehrig’s famous farewell speech.

``I think I thought I heard him say he was the luckiest man in the world,″ Puckett said from a podium just in front of second base. ``I’m here to tell Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse, that tonight Kirby Puckett is the luckiest man in the world.″

The ceremony included laser lights and fireworks, two emotional videos _ one shot three weeks ago in the Iowa cornfield where ``Field of Dreams″ was filmed _ and owner Carl Pohlad’s official announcement that Puckett’s No. 34 will be retired next season.

A highlight video of Puckett’s career was accompanied by the song ``Now And Forever,″ including the lyrics, ``And then a hero comes along, and gives us strength to carry on.″

When Puckett made his way through a tunnel of 200 children to the podium from the left-center field seat where his dramatic Game 6 home run landed in 1991, ``Simply The Best″ played, a ritual after many of Puckett’s 207 career home runs.

``Kirby was special,″ said Rose Pratt, 61, who came from Hoyt Lakes, north of Duluth. ``He’s been one of my favorites ever since he started. To me, it’s a big loss to the game without Kirby.″

After Friday’s game drew only 13,006, nearly 20,000 fans lined up hours before Saturday’s ceremony began for first dibs on general admissions seats.

The crowd was the Twins’ first in excess of 50,000 since the ’93 home opener, but fell short of the regular-season record of 53,106 that saw a Sept. 27, 1987, game against Kansas City.

That day the fans came to see Puckett and the Twins on their way to the first major championship ever in Minnesota. Puckett led the Twins to another World Series title in 1991, providing two of his most memorable moments in Game 6. He saved a run early in the game with a leaping catch against the plexiglass in left-center field, and then hit the winning home run in the 11th inning.

Wearing the uniform he said he had donned for the last time when he announced his retirement two months ago, Puckett relived a conversation with Chili Davis, a ’91 Twin who now plays for California, that happened just before Puckett’s now-famous at-bat.

``I said, `Chill, what do you think, I’m going to bunt right here,′ ″ Puckett said. ``He looked at me and said bleep, bleep. And I said, `Yeah, Chill, you’re right.′ He said, `Get a changeup and hit it out of the ballpark.′ I said, `OK, I’m going to try. But I’m going to take a few pitches first.′

``I worked the count to 2-1 and I hit the ball right out there, and (TV announcer) Jack Buck said, `We’ll see you tomorrow night.′ ″

The crowd roared on cue here, just like it did several times Saturday.

Puckett is all but certain to make it into the Hall of Fame even though his career was cut short.

His 1,970 hits from 1985-94 were the most by any player this century in his first 10 full seasons. He appeared in 10 straight All-Star games and holds team records for hits (2,304), doubles (414), runs (1,071) and total bases (3,453).

His .318 career average is second to Rod Carew’s .334. Carew, now the Angels batting coach, was playing first base for California when Puckett got the first of four hits in his major league debut May 8, 1984.

``When he got down to first base he said, `Hi, Mr. Carew.′ ″

``From day one when he first came up, he had a lot of enthusiasm,″ Carew said. ``It was nice to see that in a young player.″

That is what his fans and teammates will miss most, Puckett’s enthusiasm and infectious smile. But for all the emotion Saturday, the simplest tribute came from a promotional banner hanging in right-center field.

``You’re the greatest, man. Thanks.″