Baseball '89 : A Preview : PUCKETT FULL OF MIRACLES : Twin Outfielder Is Fast Becoming Known as One of the Game's Best Players

Times Staff Writer

At 5-foot-8 and 210 pounds, with that round, shaved head, barrel chest, linebacker thighs and Schwarzenegger arms, Kirby Puckett has been described in various manners--some complimentary, some not.

A cannonball. A fire hydrant. A Yoda in cleats.

"The Iron Sheik," says Minnesota Twins teammate Kent Hrbek, citing Puckett's resemblance to the wrestler of that name.

One description is now being heard more than any other, however.

It is now being said that Puckett, at 28, has become baseball's best all-around player. Who else? Don Mattingly, a first baseman? Jose Canseco, a right fielder? Eric Davis, who still has some proving to do?

Said Twin General Manager Andy MacPhail: "If Kirby was playing in New York, there'd be a 5-foot-8 statue of him in Times Square."

MacPhail has been building 5-8 statues of money. He recently signed his center fielder to a $2-million guarantee for 1989 and is attempting to make it a multiyear arrangement before Puckett is eligible for free agency at the end of the 1990 season.

MacPhail doesn't hesitate providing Puckett with bargaining fodder.

Canseco? Mattingly?

"I wouldn't trade Kirby even up," MacPhail said. "As far as a complete player who helps you win games, I don't think there's any comparison.

"I mean, I'm not sure I wouldn't take him on offensive production alone, but when you consider what he does defensively and in the intangible area of club leadership, then I can't see a comparison at all."

A club leader, too?

"He's not a Mickey Hatcher type," Hrbek said, alluding to the Dodgers' prank-minded free spirit. "Kirby leads by example. When he goes, we go.

"We even like to follow him out the door. Kirby always stops to sign a bunch of autographs and we can sneak by."

No wonder that the cuddly little Kirby Puckett Doll is the biggest seller at team outlets in the Twin Cities.

He's cute and it's cute, but this question of who the best all-around player is can't be answered by sales figures.

It takes figures of another kind, and the view of those who believe that seeing is believing.

Mel Didier, a special assignment scout for the Dodgers, compares Puckett to Willie Mays, a baseball deity.

"I liken him to Mays in that he gets a great jump on the ball, can go as far for it as Willie could and is just as acrobatic (as Mays) once he gets to it.

"He has a great trait as a hitter in that you can't get him out with the same pitch twice in a row. He's liable to hit it a mile. He'll definitely hit it hard.

"He's one of the two or three best in the game. I mean, if you were starting a team, you'd start by putting Ozzie Smith at shortstop and Puckett in center field."

Said MacPhail: "The best compliment I can give Kirby is that he's the type player scouts would pay to see."

Nice, but the comparison to Mays is better.

When Puckett was dreaming his impossible dreams in a South Side neighborhood of Chicago, the youngest of nine children, he dreamed of being a complete player like Mays and Ernie Banks.

Now that what he calls his "fairy tale" story has become reality, now that people are saying he may be baseball's best player, better than Mattingly or Canseco or anyone else, Puckett sits by his locker in the late stages of spring training and says:

"I'm flattered. It's nice being included in all-world company.

"But even when I was growing up in one of the toughest places in the world I felt I could be anything I wanted to be if I worked hard at it.

"Then and now I wanted to be the best. What else is there? I wanted to be like Mays. I wanted to be able to hit the home runs and make the great catches I saw him make on TV.

"I wanted people to say I worked hard and was a complete player like Mays and Banks."

And what are people saying? Well, there's Bert Blyleven, the former Twin pitcher now with the Angels, who said he definitely considers Puckett the all-around best.

"He can basically win a game by himself, but the thing about him is his attitude. He's a gamer," Blyleven said.

"As a pitcher I knew he was going to be out there every day, totally behind me on every play."

Said Hrbek: "No other hitter better combines power with the ability to make contact. Most power hitters look for one pitch. Puck is liable to take a pitch two feet outside and hit a bullet to right. He's liable to swing at anything, and he always hits it hard somewhere."

The rhetoric is compelling, but the numbers seem convincing.

--Puckett's .356 average of last year, second in the major leagues to Wade Boggs' .366, was the highest by a right-handed batter in the American League since Joe DiMaggio hit .357 in 1941.

--With 234 hits and 121 runs batted in, Puckett had more hits and RBIs in a single season than any player since Joe Medwick in 1937. The last American Leaguer to display those figures was Al Simmons in 1925.

--When Puckett collected a first-inning double against the Chicago White Sox Sept. 16, he became the fourth player in history to collect 1,000 hits before completing a fifth major league season. The others, all Hall of Famers: Medwick, Paul Waner and Earle Combs.

Puckett needs 37 hits before May 7, his five-year mark, to surpass Medwick as the all-time hit leader through that juncture.

--While batting .406 in the Metrodome last year, Puckett led the majors in hits, at-bats, singles, total bases, multihit games, outfield putouts and total chances. He was second in RBIs and batting average, tied for third in doubles, fourth in extra-base hits, fifth in slugging percentage and tied for fifth in runs.

Only nine other players have ever produced a season in which they had at least a .350 average, 200 hits, 40 doubles, 20 homers, 100 runs and 100 RBIs. The nine: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Chuck Klein, Simmons, Medwick and Mattingly.

--Since joining the Twins May 8, 1984, Puckett has gone up and over walls making spectacular catches, slid on his stomach across synthetic surfaces and never run out a hit at less than 100%. And, he has shrugged off bruises and more severe injuries to play in 765 of 780 games in that span, compiling a .322 average with 273 extra-base hits, 467 runs and 421 RBIs, including escalating totals of 96, 99 and 121 in the last three years.

With all of that, there's also this: Puckett was the ninth player in major league history to collect four hits in his first game; he tied an American League record with six hits in a nine-inning game; tied a modern major league record with 10 hits in two consecutive games; tied World Series records by reaching base five times and scoring four runs in a game; has won three straight Gold Gloves for his defense; been voted to three straight All-Star games, and wears a diamond ring emblematic of the Twins' 1987 World Series victory.

It is a measure of Puckett's success and significance to the Twins that he reached the $2-million level in salary last winter at an earlier career stage than any player in history, eventually to be edged by Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens, who has been in the majors for 4 years and 142 days, five fewer than Puckett.

Is he baseball's most complete player? Is there a definitive answer?

Consider one more gauge. Consider just the last three years, the span in which Canseco has been with the Oakland Athletics on a full-time basis and generally been recognized as baseball's most imposing physical force.

In those three years, putting aside the demands of Puckett's position and his significant edge in defensive ability, the Minnesota center fielder scored 38 more runs than Canseco and delivered 171 more hits, including 13 more doubles and 12 more triples.

Was he overwhelmed in the area of home runs and RBIs? Not at all.

Canseco, in the three years, had 106 homers and 354 RBIs. Puckett had 83 and 316.

In addition, Puckett's 664 hits over that span were the most in baseball and considerably more than renowned contact hitters Boggs (621) and Tony Gwynn (592).

Puckett also had more hits and home runs than Mattingly (610 and 79) in that period and more RBIs than RBI specialists Darryl Strawberry and Andre Dawson, among others.

Ralph Houk, now a consultant with the Twins and formerly manager of the New York Yankees during their halycon era of the '50s and early '60s, said of Puckett:

"It's hard to compare players until they've been around for seven or eight years, but if Kirby continues like he is--and I see no reason he won't--he will rank as one of the greats.

"He can do everything any of the great players I managed could--Mantle, Maris, Kaline, Yaz.

"He has that charisma that lifts him above other players, and the thing I admire is how much he loves to play. You don't always see that in talented players."

Puckett may continue to display a love for the game because of his appreciation for what it has given him and where he has been.

"It's a blessing in itself that all of us kids made it out alive," he said of the Robert Taylor housing project on Chicago's South Side, an area Newsweek once called "the place where hope dies."

Puckett's didn't. He used a broomstick to bat socks or rolls of aluminum foil around the cramped room he shared with his brothers and sisters. He made catches like Mays by bouncing a ball off a project wall. He was 14 before he played on grass.

"I had blinders on from the time I was 5 years old," he said. "I wouldn't be detoured. I wouldn't be denied.

"If you played ball, the gangs didn't bother you. There was trouble, sure, but not in our family. I always had an allowance and three meals a day. My dad worked for the post office for 40 years, then had a second job at night.

"I'd leave notes for him saying I needed a new glove or ball and it would always be there the next day. He'd say to me, 'You don't have to take from somebody else. If mom and I can't get it for you, then you can't have it.' "

At Calumet High, as skinny as he was short, Puckett began to notice ads and posters appealing to the 98-pound weakling. He was lured by the promise of muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"I wanted those muscles," he said. "I began spending all my money on fitness books and manuels. I'd go to a friends house and we'd have a baked potato and protein drink for lunch, then lift weights in the basement."

Puckett had begun to mold his powerful and unusual contour, as well as his philosophy of hitting the ball where it was pitched, hitting it hard.

He had good numbers at Calumet but attracted only a few scholarship offers from small colleges. He took a job on the assembly line at Ford Motor Company for $500 a month after his graduation, got laid off, then went to work for the Census Bureau. His break came when Bradley University Coach Dewey Kalmer saw him at a Kansas City Royals tryout camp and offered a scholarship.

Puckett accepted but was at Bradley for only three weeks when his father died.

"I wanted to quit and come home, but my mother insisted I stay," Puckett said. "We've worked too hard, we've put too much money in spikes and gloves for you to quit now," she said.

A year later, however, Puckett transferred to Triton College, only 30 minutes from his home.

The next summer, playing in a semipro game, Puckett's enthusiasm attracted the attention of Twin scout Jim Rantz, whose recommendation evolved into a first-round selection in the 1982 draft and $20,000 bonus for Puckett, who sent $5,000 to his mother.

How has he changed since then?

Not at all, Puckett claims. He is still trying to use the entire field, still trying to hit the ball where it's pitched, as he was always taught. He is still swinging at an astounding number of pitches for a .356 hitter. He walked just 23 times in 657 at-bats last year for an on-base percentage of .375, only .019 higher than his batting average.

All of that may be the same, but there has been a change in Puckett's power approach, reflected by the 83 homers he has hit in the last three years compared with the 17 he hit in his first four seasons as a pro.

Puckett credits Twins' batting instructor Tony Oliva for teaching him how to pull hits by keeping his weight back, attacking the pitch when he is ahead in the count and, though this was Puckett's idea, employing a left leg kick.

Reflecting on his accomplishments, Puckett said: "I'm in a frame of mind now where I feel I can do whatever I want to do. You have to have confidence or you might as well go home."

Puckett and wife Tonya are building a new home in the Twin Cities area. His mother will have her own wing of rooms. Sometimes, Puckett said, he sits and thinks about his artistic and financial success and finds it difficult to comprehend.

He said he feels that he earned the $2 million or they wouldn't have given it to him, but he added that it won't be spent on frivolous or material things, that he has always believed in saving for a rainy day.

"I've never taken tomorrow for granted," he said.

Growing up in the Robert Taylor projects can shape a philosophy seemingly as firm as Puckett's physical shape. But some members of the Twins' family fear that Puckett may eventually face a fearsome battle with his waist line. A source said that Puckett's midseason body fat generally measures about 11.2%, which is in the recommended parameters for Minnesota position players.

The future? Time will tell. For now, Puckett keeps a picture of Hack Wilson in his Metrodome locker. The stumpy Wilson set a major league record with 190 RBIs and a National League record with 56 home runs in 1930.

Puckett doesn't necessarily believe he can equal those numbers, but the picture is another reminder that anything is possible.

He laughed and said of Wilson: "He looks just like me. I wonder who his tailor was?"

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