Twins struggle to cope with Puckett's death

Kirby Puckett Place
Kirby Puckett Place, outside the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis.
Photo by Eric Miller/Getty Images

(AP) - Tom Kelly sat in the coaches' small room, his arms folded below the word "Twins" in red on his dark blue T-shirt. One hand gripped the armrest of his folding chair.

"I think I'm doing OK today," Minnesota's manager for most of Kirby Puckett's career said Tuesday. "I think so."

Puckett and pals
Kirby Puckett (R) talks with Milwaukee Brewers' pitcher Ray King (C) and coach Rod Carew (L), a former Minnesota Twin who's also in the Hall of Fame, before the 2001 Hall of Fame game in Cooperstown, New York. Puckett was inducted into the Hall of Fame that weekend.
Photo by HENNY RAY ABRAMS/AFP/Getty Images

Just outside the door of the spring training clubhouse, 86-year-old security guard Dominic Jamella also felt the pain of Puckett's death at age 45.

"I really miss him," said Jamella, who started working for the Twins when they moved to Fort Myers in 1991. "He never went by me when we didn't touch fists. He was a wonderful guy."

On a practice field, former Twins star and current special assistant Tony Oliva was asked what he missed about the smiling, hustling bundle of energy who spent all 12 of his seasons in Minnesota's outfield and was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2001.

"Everything," Oliva said. "Everything."

There is crying in baseball, says one sign hanging outside the Metrodome.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Puckett, who played from 1984-95 and later went to spring training as a special instructor until 2002, died Monday at a Phoenix hospital, one day after having a stroke at home.

The short, stocky outfielder was liked by teammates and opponents. Fans were taken with his all-out, hardworking approach to the game.

One of them watching the Twins work out Tuesday recalled the time he asked Puckett for an autograph.

"One of the things I remember about him is when he was working out he was always just dripping with sweat because he worked hard," said Don Shirk, 73, of Shermansdale, Pa. "It kind of worried me when he signed because I was afraid he was going to smear the autograph, but he seemed like a real nice man."

Current Twins outfielder Shannon Stewart learned that in 1993 when he was a 19-year-old prospect in his first spring training with Toronto and Puckett was starting his 10th season with Minnesota. Stewart was standing in the outfield before a game at the Twins' stadium when Blue Jays teammate Joe Carter asked if he wanted to meet Puckett.

Hats and candles
The memorial for Puckett outside the Metrodome keeps growing. It includes different Twins memorabilia, including hats, Homer Hankies and photos.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Stewart said he did and Carter talked to Puckett.

"I guess Joe told him I was a first-rounder in 1992 and Kirby goes to me, 'Hey, young fella, I heard you were a first-round pick. You got any change I can borrow?'" Stewart said. "It made me smile."

Besides some long faces, there were no outward reminders at the workout of Puckett's death. No flags at half-staff. No posters with Puckett's name held by any of the about 40 fans. No black armbands on uniforms.

But you couldn't get to the field without realizing what Puckett meant to the franchise. After driving into the main entrance to the parking area, the first right turn put you on Puckett Pkwy., one of several paved paths named for former Twins.

"He was so revered by his teammates as well as other major league players he might have been the most respected player at the time and I think that's the ultimate compliment," said Kelly, the Twins manager from 1986 to 2001.

I'm doing OK. The sun's out, but we have a little bit of gloom with Kirby.

"He made my life a joy. I was just fortunate to come along at the same time he did," Kelly said. "Let's be honest. I rode the coattails and a lot of coaches did and fans did, and a whole bunch of people got on board and rode that train right with him, and he was driving."

A few minutes later, Kelly and other spring training instructors headed to the fields.

One of them, Rod Carew, was carrying a bat when Jamella asked him how he was doing.

"I'm doing OK. The sun's out," he said, "but we have a little bit of gloom with Kirby."

Both houses of the Minnesota Legislature paused Wednesday afternoon to remember Puckett.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson held up a baseball Puckett gave him and talked about Puckett's impact in baseball and beyond, through scholarship programs and children's charities.

Senators bowed their heads and observed a moment of silence in Puckett's memory.

House members took turns reading lines from a resolution that labeled him "one of the greates players in baseball history."

Puckett's family will get a copy of the resolution.

A public memorial service for Puckett is planned for 7 p.m. Sunday at the Metrodome. The gates will open at 6 p.m., and there will be no charge with seating by general admission.

A private visitation and memorial service is slated for Sunday afternoon in the Twin Cities. The Twins were planning to attend Puckett's funeral.

"We'll take our time and go there, pay our respects, and then come on back down to spring training," general manager Terry Ryan said.

The Twin Cities' other pro teams also took time to honor Puckett on Tuesday night. The NBA's Timberwolves and NHL's Wild had moments of silence before their games. Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett had K.P. 34 (Puckett's jersey number) written on his shoes.

The Twins also plan to dedicate their 2006 season to Kirby Puckett.

Twins president Dave St. Peter said the team will find some ways to celebrate Puckett's legacy throughout the season.

The Twins already have retired Puckett's Number 34, and a large picture of Puckett already hangs on the upper-deck curtain at the Metrodome.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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