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Jim wrote this for one of his former newspapers in July of 1996, after Kirby Puckett announced his retirement.

What can we do for you, Kirby?

"Without these heroes we are all plain people and don't know how far we can go." -- From Bernard Malamud's "The Natural."

Kirby Puckett essentially replaced Minnesota-born Jim Eisenreich on the Minnesota Twins roster one California night in 1984. When Puckett arrived at the Metrodome for his first homestand later that May a few folks wanted a look at the kid who was punctuating a national story.

At the time, Eisenreich was a tortured soul who suffered form Tourette's Syndrome. He was so self-conscious and troubled over his condition that he did not speak to the press, and he wallpapered himself from his teammates, who didn't understand Eisenreich's plight.

Puckett's demeanor when he first set foot in the Metrodome basement was about a bunt single removed from Eisenreich's. Quiet and businesslike, this short, skinny character trotted past the batting cage, down the first base line, scooted out to shag balls, and pretty much kept to himself. Some were curious about what Puckett would become.

Shortly, our curiosity was pretty well satisfied.

Puckett became the prince of clubhouse camaraderie, the lord of center field, and the darling of an entire state.

Puckett took a bad story in center field and turned it into a fairy tale. Now, it seems his career will suffer a worse turn than Eisenreich's.

We never had any idea Eisenreich would come back to have the career he's had. Futile as it probably is, about the only comfort in Puckett's startling retirement announcement because of glaucoma Friday is that maybe Puckett will have a second chance, too.

It's not really so much that he deserves a second chance. He has more than he ever dreamed of as a poor child in a frightening Chicago neighborhood. It's the fans who deserve the second chance.

And Major League Baseball needs it, too.

That's because Kirby Puckett comes exactly as advertised. There's little facade. No spin. No superficial persona created for the public. The media never had to build Puckett into something he wasn't. Puckett might not live a perfect, ginger-ale life, but he bubbles up pretty close.

Comin' through, boys

Kirby Puckett Pancakes bag

Seems like the 1930s: A guy so popular he had a pancake mix named after him.

The quintessential Puckett tale has Kirby with a towel wrapped around a thick waist far more muscular than would appear in that No. 34 jersey that no Twin will wear again. It's post-season, 1987. Pitcher Bert Blyleven and his locker aren't even visible as rows of reporters and mini-cams spill into the open area leading to the showers.

The reporters are packed so deep they crowd a table in the center of the Twins' clubhouse and Puckett, in quest of a shower, has no path.

Major League clubhouses become more home than home for many players during the season, and most players don't like strangers clogging up their homes. Baseball stars aren't reluctant to let reporters know this, and the sentiment generally arrives with a few expletives and a scowl that would separate a label from a beer bottle.

Puckett made a few approaches into the crowd that evening, seemingly in hope that the mini-cams would part. They didn't part, and Puckett didn't bark.

"Comin' through, boys! I'm coming through!" his voice sparked. And when he made little headway Puckett piped the same lines again, then cleverly added a few words that might be only moderately offensive here. Essentially, he informed the assembled there was only a towel between them and all of Kirby, and perhaps most of them would like to keep it that way.

The path appeared. The all-male media turned from Blyleven and laughed at Puckett.

I admired his approach to it all.

I admired Puckett's approach to basically everything I saw him do on the field, and what I saw him do off it. Certainly, he rejected an autograph request or two in his time. But most of us prefer to finish our meals before they coagulate. We can understand that, especially when it was easy to see how different he was from most ballplayers.

Puckett would meet a person with a press credential on the Metrodome stairs, or settle down next to one on the dugout bench before a game. And he might just ask, "What can I do for you today, buddy?"

You did enough for us, Puck. What can we do for you?

Essays index

"Lenny, now I know why you wanted all that dynamite." -- Puck after seeing a photo in Lenny Webster's locker of the smiling catcher holding a stringer of a dozen fish.

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