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Puckett’s Mother Knew Best : American League: Twins’ slugger plays for her memory and for $3 million a season--in that order.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Catherine Margaret Puckett, a lively and lovely 13-month-old, will never know the deprivation that tried to claim her father in his youth.

“A lot of guys I grew up with are dead or in jail,” Minnesota center fielder Kirby Puckett said calmly Thursday, not intending to shock.

Catherine Margaret will know luxury, the kind that buys the frills and bows she wears in the picture adorning her father’s locker in the Twins’ clubhouse.

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She also will know the riches of boundless love, the kind bestowed on her father by his mother, also named Catherine, who gave birth to nine children, then helped them develop the strength to conquer the desperation of a South Side Chicago ghetto.

The elder Catherine Puckett died two years ago of heart disease, even as her son pursued the American League batting title. But she lives on in name and in Kirby’s unique and generous spirit.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of her,” said Puckett, whose family lived in a three-room apartment in the Robert Taylor Homes, a housing project not far from Comiskey Park. “Every day that passes, she’s on my mind. But I know she’s in a better place and she’s looking over me.

“She was a great person. You talk about sports heroes, but anybody that can raise nine kids and keep them out of trouble, that’s something. My dad was working two jobs and wasn’t around much, so she taught us to be responsible.”

It’s a lesson Puckett lives daily. This squatty, thick-thighed outfielder is nothing less than the soul of the Twins, a leader by example and his ever-present smile.

A career .320 hitter, Puckett was only one for seven in the first two games of Minnesota’s American League playoff series against the Toronto Blue Jays. Questioned about his lack of production, he answered with an eight-for-14 spree that included a double, two homers and five RBIs. He won the series MVP award.

“It always feels good to do something positive and help. That’s my job,” Puckett said Thursday at the Metrodome, where the Twins worked out for Saturday’s World Series opener.

“When you’re used to carrying the club and you don’t do it, it can get to you a little bit. But we’ve gotten to this point, and we weren’t supposed to be here. That says a lot about our ballclub, not just me.”

His teammates can’t say enough about his good nature and his great ability.

“For a guy that has a burden on his shoulders--he carries not only the ballclub but the Twin Cities--that’s a load not a lot of players could carry,” reserve second baseman Al Newman said. “Last year, Kirby hit .298 and everybody said, ‘What’s wrong with Kirby?’ If I hit .298, I might go in and ask for $3 million.

“He’s one of those guys who can carry a ballclub.”

And carry it gracefully.

“He’s impressed me a great deal,” Chuck Knoblauch, the Twins’ rookie second baseman, said. “I can’t find words to describe how much. You can be having a bad day and he’s always smiling and laughing, and he tries to get you going, even if he’s having a bad day. Although, most of the time he’s going good.

“After the first few games against Toronto (when the series was 1-1) he said, ‘I’m not worried. I’ve very confident.’ He never lets you know he’s down, and that’s important because if a guy gets down, he can drag other guys down. He’s always smiling.

“You’d never know he makes $3 million a year. He’s just like everyone else. He makes you feel welcome.”

Puckett, who in 1989 became the fourth player to total 1,000 hits in his first five seasons, became baseball’s first $3-million player in November of that year, when he signed a three-year contract worth $9 million. Only five days later, Oakland’s Rickey Henderson signed a four-year, $12-million agreement.

Puckett has been passed on the salary scale by scores of players who haven’t approached his accomplishments, such as the 200 hits and 85 RBIs he has averaged during his eight-year career, or the .356 average he recorded in 1988, the highest by a right-handed hitter in the American League since Joe DiMaggio’s .357 in 1941.

But to Puckett, the idea of demanding that his contract be re-negotiated is foreign. Let Henderson pout and hold out. That’s not the way Catherine Puckett brought up her son.

“I signed a contract and I’ll honor it,” said Puckett, acknowledging that he would accept an extension should the Twins offer one. “I’m a 30-year-old man and I’ve gotten everything I dreamed of. . . . All I ever wanted to do since I was 5 years old is play this game.”

He first played it between apartment buildings and didn’t see a grass field until he was 14 or 15.

“We’d draw a square on the wall with a piece of chalk,” he said, using his hands to outline a space from his shoulders to his calves. “It was big. That’s probably why my strike zone is so big. We’d play with a rubber ball and hard balls on concrete. You really took your life in your hands when you did that.”

Doubters would tell him his physical stature would limit his success, but his determination knew no limits.

“When you think of outfielders, you think of somebody like Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis, who’s 6-3, 200 pounds. God knows, I’m not going to be 6-3, 200 pounds,” said Puckett, who is a compact 5-8 and 216. “I just said, ‘The Lord gave me this body and I’m going to make the most of it.’

“In the neighborhood where I grew up, all I asked was for somebody to give me a chance to show what I had. If they gave me a chance, I was sure it would work out.”

At 15, Puckett played third base in a semipro league with teammates a decade older. Unnoticed by pro scouts at Chicago’s Calumet High School, he won a scholarship to Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., but left to attend Triton Junior College in the Chicago suburb of River Grove.

A scout attending an Illinois summer collegiate baseball league game saw him play and recommended him strongly enough for the Twins to choose him third in the 1982 draft.

A .382 batting average for Elizabethton, Tenn., of the Appalachian League earned him a promotion to Visalia the next season, and from Visalia he progressed to Toledo and to Minnesota, where he hit .296 in 128 games in 1984. His strong throwing arm earned raves, too. He led the American League with 16 outfield assists as a rookie and has won four Gold Gloves.

He claims he is not in the category of Oakland’s Jose Canseco or Detroit’s Cecil Fielder because “the majority of people come to the ballgame and want to see home runs. I’m a line-drive type hitter. I’ll get you 80 RBIs, 10-15 home runs and I’ll hit you .300. Mr. Canseco and Mr. Fielder will hit you .260, .270 with 40 homers and 100 RBIs.”

But their teams have been eliminated, and Puckett is trying for a second World Series ring to match the one he won in 1987.

“This is my second time, and it’s always sweeter the second time,” said Puckett, who hit .357 in the Twins’ seven-game victory over St. Louis in ’87.

“As a kid in Chicago, I idolized Ernie Banks and Billy Williams, who never made it to (postseason play with the Cubs). I feel very fortunate. A lot of guys who played this game never got a chance to do this. This is what dreams are made of.”

Kirby Puckett


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