I was nine years old, my brother just six when my dad took my brother and I to our first Twins game. I can remember it like it was yesterday, even though it was in early August of 1987. The Twins were playing the California Angels, and it was Reggie Jackson's final game in Minnesota; they had a ceremony to honor him during the game. Because we grew up in northwest Iowa and in those days, the only games on TV were NBC's Game Of The Week, neither my brother or I had ever seen the Twins with our own eyes.
The short, stocky guy who patrolled centerfield for the hometown nine that August day looked nothing like a ballplayer. As a matter of fact, he looked like any number of average people you might see at Target shopping for toothpaste and deodorant. He looked nothing like a ballplayer, yet he was the best player on either team, and we were both mesmerized by him.
Kirby Puckett had that kind of effect on just about everyone who ever saw him play. Thousands -- nay, millions -- of kids in the upper midwest became baseball fans because of Kirby. There were lots of kids who, like Kirby, adopted a leg kick into their baseball swing. He was flamboyant. He was exuberant. He seemed larger than life. Mythological, almost. He was one of the greatest players in the game. But to kids, maybe most importantly, he was diminuative in stature, not much bigger than them. Standing at just 5'8" and a robust 200 pounds, Kirby wasn't the imposing, intimidating figure Kent Hrbek was. He was a guy you felt like you could run up to and say hey to, and every kid who saw him did.
And the beauty of it was, Kirby made time for all of those kids. One day in 1989, my brother and I waited outside of the players entrance for Kirby, and Hrbek, and the other Twins to come out. When Gary Gaetti emerged, he pushed through the crowd and got into a waiting car, whisking him away, signing no autographs. When Kent Hrbek came out, he signed for every kid who asked, but he was such a big, lumbering fellow that many kids were too intimidated to approach him. But when Kirby came out, the kids swarmed him, forming a civil mosh pit and a giant almost group hug. He signed for every single kid.
He was our guy. And for my brother and I, we would only get to see Kirby play maybe 10 times a year -- a handful on NBC's Game of the Week, and maybe two or three times in person. Of course, this only grew his myth for us. Listening to his heroics on the radio instead of seeing them made us paint a picture of Kirby in our minds that was so much larger than any man could ever possibly be. Bigger than even Kirby could possibly be, as it would turn out.