Am I Not a Role Model? Looking Back and Up to Kirby Puckett

It was 26 October, 1991. My brother, my father, and I were gathered around the television, literally hunched at the edge of the couch in agonized anticipation. What had brought us together in this communal contortion was nothing more than a simple baseball game. Ordinarily, we would have been otherwise occupied. None of us were big fans of the sport per se and, by the time the end of baseball season rolled around in October, our lukewarm enthusiasm had generally evaporated altogether. But this year was different. This year, the Minnesota Twins were playing the Atlanta Braves in the World Series.

You see, my dad grew up in a rural corner of Minnesota and, though he swore off snow for life and vowed never to return, he still managed to genetically implant his two sons with an unfortunate gene that caused one to root for all of Minnesota’s sports teams — regardless of logic or the associated mental health risks. While the Twins had improbably managed to win the World Series four years earlier, life for the state’s pro franchises, before that and since, was a veritable hell.

The hockey team, for example, had just lost in the Stanley Cup finals that year (and would leave the state for Dallas just two years later). Prior to this, the football team had managed to lose all four of the Super Bowls it had made it to (I was lucky enough to be less than a year old for the last of these). What’s more, the basketball team was floundering as an NBA expansion club, and this after the original Minneapolis Lakers had moved away to sunnier Los Angeles to become one of the best teams in league history.

But now that the Twins had made it back to the championship, things once again had a chance to turn remarkably wonderful for our rooting fortunes — or, as the case often proved to be, predictably disastrous. Down three games to two that night, the Twins needed a win to stay alive in the best of seven series. Our palms grew sweatier and knuckles whiter as game six, tied at three runs each, ran into extra innings. As the contest wore on, we held our breath at each pitch, ignoring the rain that lashed the windowpanes and shouting in vain at the television that passively tortured us with images of the Twins heading into the 11th inning.

That’s when all hell broke loose. During a commercial break, with the Twins coming up to bat, a nearby lightning strike plunged our world into darkness. The hum of the refrigerator died out, the television along with it. We sat in stunned silence for what seemed like an eternity until my father leapt up, swearing a streak of baroque profanity that can only come from a man on the brink, a man whose life was spent rooting for the Twins. Banging through the utility closet, he had a storm radio and candles out in seconds, resituating our tortured spectatorship from the living room to the back patio. There, above the din of the rain pounding the patio roof, in the faint glow of candles punctuated by lightning flashes, we listened to Kirby Puckett, the Twins’ short, stocky centerfielder, hit a game-winning home run that sent the series to a decisive seventh game. That, too, lasted extra innings, and again the Twins prevailed, winning the last championship to have been awarded to any Minnesota pro team.

It was this memory that first pinwheeled through my head as I learned the news of Puckett’s death from a massive stroke earlier this month. And I was not alone in remembering that feat. Commentators everywhere extolled that moment as emblematic of Puckett’s Hall of Fame abilities on the field. Along with this praise, others singled out Puckett’s fidelity (he only played for the Twins, a rare thing in these days of nomadic free agency) and the boyish exuberance that he displayed in his approach to the game. Kirby, we could all agree, was a credit to the league. Taken at the age of 45, his passing was the latest in a series of raw deals that confronted Puckett, beginning with his being hit in the eye with a wild pitch, then (in an unrelated development) suffering blinding glaucoma in that same eye. His life, like his career, was cut all too short.

Of course, Kirby’s celebrators are both earnest and expected. Death is rarely a time to disparage a person. Few people, we can agree, actually deserve to die, and so even the worst among us are remembered and perhaps even praised by someone, somewhere (just see the public display over Slobodan Milosevic’s recent passing). Puckett was an icon and a hero to sports fans in Minnesota and elsewhere, but that’s only half the story of his life.

His off the field exploits were far less laudable than his heroics as a Twin. After going through a bitter divorce in which his wife accused him of making death threats against her, Puckett was charged by another woman in 2003 for false imprisonment and criminal sexual assault. Allegedly, Puckett had pulled her into a bathroom at a suburban Minneapolis restaurant and fondled her. Though he was acquitted, rumors began to circulate about Puckett’s mistresses during his marriage, painting an emerging pattern of his mistreatment of women.

Looking over the tributes to the man during recent weeks, this athlete that once shamed a lighting storm for me with his electric abilities, I can’t seem to shake the specter of the accusations that haunted Puckett in his final years. If I knew then what I know now, would that home run have meant as much? Does it mean as much today? Underlying these questions is the much-debated position of the pro athlete as a role model. NBA star Charles Barkley perhaps most famously rejected this notion as pawning off the responsibilities of parenthood to complete strangers who just happen to appear on television. I agreed with him when he made those statements, and I still do. Yet I can’t deny that Puckett’s clutch hitting and play in the outfield represented more to me than baseball skill. Somehow, it was as if I myself had been validated by the championships he’d helped the Twins win. No longer having to face my friends with shame, no longer having to back the underdog, Puckett made his team a winner and, by extension, made me one too.

Really, this kind of identification is to be expected. Baseball, with its emphasis on individual achievement, provides its fans access to its athletes in a way that has predisposed them to being placed on cultural pedestals. Perhaps this explains, in part, why the steroid scandal that continues to plague the sport and its most visible star, Barry Bonds, occasions such vehement indignation in fans and the media. “Think of the children” is a phrase that always curdles in my stomach (as it’s one I’ve heard been abused by countless adults with their own agendas masquerading as interest in the “public good”), but it possesses an undeniable kernel of truth when it comes to the issue of athletes as role models. If we allow any sort of fandom in sports, we must also allow some degree of identification with its practitioners. That’s not to say (though many do) that the players owe us any kind of prescribed behavior. But when they do slip up, take drugs, beat women, or gamble on their sport, their shortcomings can’t help but affect those who are emotionally invested in the successes and failures of professional athletes.

Still, the professional athlete’s fall from grace in the public eye might be both inevitable, and, in a way, important. If the passage to adulthood can be thought of as the growing awareness of the fallibility of your heroes, then the fallibility of Puckett, Bonds, and many others is really just a pedagogical tool, exposing us to the real world where shortcoming, not perfection, is the norm. Granted, that’s a deeply cynical view of things. And it’s also one that ignores the persistent, yet impossible, disposition of many sports fans who see sports as a much-needed escape from reality, not as preparation for it. Reality, however, is an unavoidable intruder.

In looking back at Puckett’s career, the one thing I can be sure about is that I have no special claim to his memory and no particular authority over his legacy. As a fan, I can say simply that he once lit up a stormy fall night for me in a way I thought I’d never forget. Today, looking back on his troubles off the field, I am forced to remember him a bit differently. But in that difference is a useful reminder. Our tendency to simplify life — in memories, with commercial taglines, or though the rules of a game — is a doomed enterprise. Our heroes, like the world they inhabit, inevitably resist us through complication. In the end, they’re neither role models nor villains — just flawed, and human.

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