The Last Dance
by Uncle Jumbo
Posted July 17, 1996 PREV | NEXT
Doo Wop is the 20th century equivalent of the Gregorian chant, and Friday night found me sitting in my dark apartment in my underwear, weeping intermittently and shuttling records to and from my turntable, letting every sad song I could find pound away at the heavy bag that was my heart. It didn’t matter at all that every single song was a tortured lover’s plea or the wailing of a spurned lover with a broken heart; the triumphs and defeats of my favorite athletes and the joy and sadness they provide me is as close as a guy like me is ever likely to get to experiencing the pings and pangs of love. So go ahead and get creeped out; Friday night I lost the best girl I ever had, and no pill was gonna cure my ills. Shep and the Limelites’ "Daddy’s Home" was like an ice pick in my heart.
When you imagined being a professional baseball player you pictured yourself as Kirby Puckett, even before there was a Kirby Puckett

Because, see, it was Kirby Puckett who finally showed this fat boy from Blooming Void how to dance. On October 26, 1991 I was 30 years old and still basically an awkward kid trying to come to terms with the hard truth that time makes a grown-up out of you whether you’re ready or not. I had never danced in my life, not with another human being, not alone, nothing, ever. I was so self-conscious by that point that even tapping my feet or clapping my hands felt foolish and awkward. Yet – having improbably scammed a ticket hours before Game Six – there I was celebrating Kirby’s eleventh-inning home run off Charlie Leibrandt. Complete strangers were slapping my hands, shouting, grabbing at me, and all of a sudden – it wasn’t smooth and it wasn’t pretty – I realized that I was dancing for the first time. And that night I danced all the way home.

When Kirby Puckett stepped to the plate against California’s Jim Slaton on May 8, 1984 the Dark Ages of Minnesota baseball were over. Kirby was a one-man renaissance, and for 12 seasons every one of his highlights was a highlight for many thousands of other people.

Think of all the times Kirby had people all over the region springing up next to their radios, slapping the steering wheels of their cars, letting go and high-fiving in moments of sheer happiness at the wonderful, abracadabra nature of the Puck’s gifts. If I live to be a hundred no one will ever drive more whoops from my throat than Kirby Puckett did. I was sitting in a Rainbow Foods parking lot last August 15 when Kirby hit a three-run homer off Bobby Ayala in the bottom of the ninth to beat Seattle. The pure joy of the moment sprung me right out of my car and into the parking lot where I did the Fatboy Mambo Puck taught me and howled at the top of my lungs, oblivious to the stares of the horrified or amused customers all around me. "Kirby Puckett!" I shrieked. "Kirby Puckett!"

One more favorite memory: In 1986, in one of the most irrational and inspired moments of my life, I climbed aboard a Greyhound bus and headed down to Florida for Spring Training. The day I arrived in Orlando I took a cab right out to Tinker Field and got there in time to catch the last innings of an early March game. It was a beautiful afternoon, and after the game I was sitting on the curb outside the park when I saw Kirby coming down the sidewalk toward me, toting a huge bag. He put the bag down near me and paused to wait for the other members of his party. Then he looked down at me there on the curb and said, "How’s it going, man?" I was tongue-tied, and fumbling for something for him to sign. I’d never asked anyone for an autograph in my life, but I handed Puck a scrap of paper and a pen and asked him to sign. He did so, handed the paper and pen back to me, and said, "You gotta cut that hair, man" And a moment later he was gone, shuffling away with friends, his laugh rattling around in the empty parking lot.

In New York guys like Lawrence Taylor or Keith Hernandez can be the "heart and soul" of teams, but we had the real deal in Kirby Puckett; he was the heart and soul of the Minnesota Twins, the perfect personification of every kid’s Big League dream. When you imagined being a professional baseball player you pictured yourself as Kirby Puckett, even before there was a Kirby Puckett. Baseball was fun and it presented you with countless opportunities for heroism, most of which you seized with perfect and dramatic timing. Every day all over the country little kids and grown men like me lose hours in daydreams of baseball glory, and the understanding that he was privileged to live out those dreams was implicit in everything Kirby did.

I know Kirby’s not dead, but there is a sense in which the retirement of every great player represents a sort of death for the fan. The part of Kirby’s life that he shared with us is over. We no longer will have access to his gifts and he’s not going to be coming into our lives 162 days a year. And that’s what’s particularly hard to take, because nobody’s going to take Kirby’s place, and life in the blue seats will never be the same. My neighbors are going to get mighty tired of hearing Billy Stewart’s "A Fat Boy Can Cry."

Kirby was the jackpot none of us deserved, least of all Carl Pohlad, least of all me. What a package. What a treasure. What a gift. Thanks, Kirby.

THE NUMBERS: KIRBY leaves as the Twins’ all-time leader in hits, runs, and total bases. Seven career grand slams, the seventh coming last year off Randy Johnson. Thirteen career two-homer games. Forty-seven four-plus hit games. Six five-plus hit games. Two career six-hit games. In 1995 Kirby hit .625 with the bases loaded. Hit for the cycle, August 1, 1986 vs. Oakland. Ten-time All-Star, 1993 All-Star MVP. .311 career batting average in the American League Championship Series. .308 in World Series play. Back-to-back American League Player of the Month awards in May and June, 1992. First major league home run: April 22, 1985, off Matt Young, Seattle. Ejected for the only time in his career July 31, 1985, by umpire Drew Coble.