Remembering Baseball's Kirby Puckett
NEAL CONAN, host:
Kirby Puckett, the baseball Hall of Famer with an unquenchable enthusiasm for the game, died yesterday, following a stroke.
Kirby Puckett spent his entire career with the Minnesota Twins--led that team twice to the World Series Championship--first in 1987, again in 1991. His career was cut short in 1996 because of glaucoma.
Joining us now to discuss Puckett's career is his agent and friend, Ron Shapiro, who's with us by phone from Orlando, Florida.
And Ron, this had to come as a terrible, terrible shock.
Mr. RON SHAPIRO (Former agent of Kirby Puckett): Well, it's a loss. It's a loss, because Kirby Puckett represented, when he played the game of baseball, everything that was good about it, positive spirit, love of people, love of players, it just, he was just an infectious and inspirational force. So, it's tough to take.
CONAN: Tell us a little bit about what he was like. We got to see him on the field. We saw that joy that he brought to the game. You got to know him pretty well.
Mr. SHAPIRO: Well, Neal, I have represented and worked with many, many players in the game, and I think the thing that you have to recognize first and foremost is that every one of them has a Kirby Puckett story. Because the first day that each one walked on the field, I get the same story, they meet Kirby Puckett, he would assign them a nickname. He would kid around with them, and then he would inspire them with the joy, and recognizing the great privilege they had to play the game, and the opportunity they had.
People said he just had an infectious spirit that when with them. And I guess that's why in the last 24-hours, I've had so many calls from players throughout the game, because they all loved Puck. So, on the field, he was a great player, but he was a great inspiration who inspired and helped and mentored a lot of young players.
Off the field, there was another piece of Kirby, you know, in that he believed in the old Churchill saying, "You make a living by what you get, you make a life by what you give," and as the people of Minnesota are testifying now, he put so much into that community in scholarship programs and seats for kids and visits to hospitals. He was just an inspirational piece, and probably, for a time, and maybe even today, as at least the evidence of the outpouring, the most popular man in the state of Minnesota.
CONAN: The Minnesota Twins organization, I don't mean to, they're not known as the most generous of organizations. They don't have the highest payroll. Kirby Puckett cold have gone and played elsewhere.
Mr. SHAPIRO: Well, we had some decisions to make. I mean, I remembered negotiating a contract for Kirby Puckett in the summer of, I think it was 1993, and the Twins' general manager, Andy McPhail, agreed to it. It was somewhat below market, but the Twins ownership would not agree to it. And so, we had to go into the marketplace, and I remember Kirby was wined and dined and seeded in Boston and Philadelphia and elsewhere, money was thrown at him, but his heart and soul was still rooted in the community.
And he was willing, ultimately, to take less. Now, he got more than the owner could've agreed to during the summer, but he got much less than he might have gotten elsewhere, because Kirby understood the value of, you know, dollars mean something, but community means something even more. And, you know, ironically, when he was stricken with glaucoma, blinded when his career was cut short, the community just, the deluge of support for him was overwhelming.
So, the community gave back to him at that point. But yes, Kirby was in a situation where he wasn't in a high paying organization, but the high pay came in intangible ways.
CONAN: His baseball career, we remember, I guess everybody remembers game six of the 1991 World Series, but it was really what Kirby Puckett did every day that made him so special.
Mr. SHAPIRO: I remember, you know, before game five of the series, the Twins were down, and it looked dismal. They were in Atlanta. I walked into a hotel with my partner, Michael Moss(ph), and everybody was just down in the dumps. Except there was this one table where Kirby Puckett sat with his family. And Michael and I walked over to the table, we sat down, and Kirby looked up with a big, bright smile and he said, "Don't you all worry. I'm going to put this team on my back, and we're going to win this thing."
And, of course, you know, game six, the home run, the catch in game seven, I mean, you know, people would hit balls that looked like they were going into the night, and then Kirby would jump up into the night. So, not only did he hit home runs, he pulled balls back into the ballpark, and he almost single-handedly won that series for the Twins.
CONAN: He also gave some measure of hope to those of us who were born without the classic athlete's body.
Mr. SHAPIRO: Well, Kirby was a bowling ball. And some of us are short, and some of us are fat, and Kirby was both. And yet, he was a powerful hitter, he became a power hitter. He knew how to run the bases, he just, he was an inspiration to people. I mean, he was not, did not look physically equipped to play the game, but I'll tell you a little secret, Neal. If you ever put your hand on his thigh or on his bicep, you felt rocks. He was rock solid. And it wasn't because he lifted weights, it was just because he had this natural gift, and so his body, despite his body, he became one of the youngest to go into the Hall of Fame, and I guess because of his body, he became of the youngest to die as a Hall of Fame member.
CONAN: Ron Shapiro, thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. SHAPIRO: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Ron Shapiro was the agent and friend of Kirby Puckett, the great star of the Minnesota Twins and member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, who died yesterday in Phoenix, Arizona, at the age of 45, of a stroke.
I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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