They Have Player They Can Lean On in Thick of Things

You can tell right away what's wrong with Kirby Puckett. He needs to go on a diet, right? He needs to lose about 30 pounds. I mean, who does he think he is, Babe Ruth? You figure he would have to slim that waistline down or the pitchers would start tying him up on the inside.

You would be wrong. Kirby Puckett is not your basic Minnesota Fats. Kirby Puckett has less body fat than a flamenco dancer. Don't let that silhouette fool you. It has fooled half a hundred pitchers in the American League for the best part of a decade. Fastball inside, curveball outside and Fatso would never get the fat part of the bat, so to speak, on the ball.

But Kirby has given a bad name to the svelte look. The scouting report on him recommends you forget the avoirdupois. "Don't give this guy anything good to hit," it warned, "or the next sound you will hear will be seats breaking."

Still, it is hard for some to dispute the evidence of their eyes. This is a department store Santa Claus standing up there, you think. I mean, hitters are called "The Splendid Splinter" or "Slats," maybe even "Pee Wee." Not, "The Blob."

But before Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers or Richard Simmons comes looking for Puckett, be advised that the fat content in that round mound is less than 10%. That's as solid as anything carried around by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

You don't look at a belt size to measure Puckett. You look at his other statistics, the decimals, the totals. This is a man who batted .356 two years ago, who got more than 200 hits four years in a row (and 199 the year before that). This is a man who once stole 48 bases in a minor league season.

They don't simply stick him in right field and hope that nothing comes his way to waddle after in embarrassment. This is a man who plays center field the way it is meant to be played, where you put your quickest feet and strongest arm--the Willie Mays position.

Very little out there gets by Kirby Puckett. The World Series found out in the fourth inning of Game 1 Saturday night when Atlanta's Ron Gant hit a towering drive atop the plexiglass fencing 400 feet from home plate. When and where the ball came down, was where Puckett was, as usual.

It should come as no surprise to close students of World Series that the starring role should go to an understudy Sunday night. A World Series is a spear-carrier's delight.

A Scott Leius, a platooned infielder, hit the home run that doomed Atlanta in Game 2. His is exactly the profile of the improbable Series star. Series have been romps for players who were back in the minor leagues the next season and out of baseball soon thereafter.

Leius, who plays third base for Minnesota when a left-hander is pitching for the opposition, was hitting his seventh lifetime home run in the big leagues and batting in only his 25th lifetime run.

He is 116 lifetime homers and 670 lifetime RBIs behind Puckett, but his picture will be in all the papers this morning.

Atlanta's Tommy Glavine pitched a four-hitter. But those four hits were for 10 bases. The Braves' eight hits were for nine bases.

The game turned on a play that was right out of a Hulk Hogan repertoire. In the third inning, Minnesota's hulking first-baseman Kent Hrbek, whose nickname should be Hulk, too, found a new way to tag a base-runner out. It was not easy. Ron Gant was camped on the base at the time. He had singled and was more or less standing there minding his own business when Hrbek, who had caught a relay throw, decided to lift Gant off it and tag him out. It wasn't really an out, it was a sack.

Those things happen in World Series, too.

Meanwhile, back in the spotlight, Puckett was having a second consecutive night where he couldn't get the ball out of the infield.

He is in good company. Babe Ruth never had a struggling World Series (he hit . 625 in one) but Ted Williams did. He settled for five measly singles and a . 200 average in his only fall classic. A Gil Hodges once went 0-for-21 in one.

Kirby Puckett is gaining on him. He is 0 for 9.

Pitchers don't throw him mistakes. Not a man with a lifetime .320 batting average who had 195 hits last season, batted .429 with two homers in the playoff and is the big reason Minnesota's Twins are in this thing, their second World Series in four years.

Puckett stood in the locker room with the jewelled No. 34 hanging off his size 18 neck after the game and smiled. Puckett smiles a lot.

"Aw, I'm just hanging on around here," he joked. "Marking time till the kids take over. I'm getting old."

He is 30. Eight more years of 200 hits, give or take a few, and he would be one of baseball's elite--a 3,000-hit man. "Aw, man, that's a lot of curves to hit!" he beams.

In his only complete World Series to date, 1987's, Puckett hit . 357, drove in three runs and scored five. Did he think he would get going in this one?

"You'll have to ask the pitchers," he said with a laugh.

The pitchers, to a man, are afraid he will. They save the "A" pitches for him. They only hope they can keep getting him out with them.

Even if they do, they know it won't be because he's too fat.

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