Mold-breaking Kirby Puckett a long-ball masher for Minnesota
St. Louis — If you happen to be driving a 10-year-old Ford, part of it may have been assembled by outfielder Kirby Puckett of the Minnesota Twins. Kirby once marked time at a Ford plant while trying to convince a skeptical world that he could indeed play organized baseball. Puckett's current interest is in taking pitchers apart, which for the moment means those throwing for the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. He has a very compact strike zone, so pitchers who try to get too cute risk putting him on base with a walk. Although Cardinal hurlers didn't make that mistake in the first two series games, Kirby did collect two singles in the hit parade that carried Minnesota to a pair of victories.
Puckett grew up in a part of Chicago's tough south side, where a lot of kids went wrong via drugs, gang wars, or other street crime. What saved Kirby was a wonderful outlook on life and the dream of being a major leaguer.
When you're built like a hydrant, even one 5 ft. 8 in. tall and 205 lbs., most big league scouts aren't going to give you more than a line or two in their notebooks. They are looking for infielders and outfielders with flexibility, catchers with hands like frying pans, pitchers with velocity, and anybody with the power to consistently hit home runs.
Puckett, however, didn't come out of any mold that had ``baseball player'' written on it. He looked like he'd been training in a restaurant specializing in chocolate desserts.
But Minnesota scout Ellsworth Brown looked beyond the rounded edges and discovered a guy who could do all the things necessary to become a top athlete. Brown also saw the biggest helping of determination that ever challenged a curveball. He was so sure of Kirby's ability that he got the Twins to make him the No. 3 pick in baseball's 1982 player draft.
Minnesota sent Puckett to Elizabethton, Tenn., in the Appalachian League where he batted .382. The problem was that he hit only three home runs - not the kind of power the parent club envisions for a future major league outfielder.
It was the same the following year at Visalia, Calif. - good average but not enough long-ball slugging. Still, when the Twins needed help in the outfield part way into the 1984 season, they sent for Puckett, who had already played 21 games with their Toledo farm club.
One reason may have been that they already knew Kirby was big-league caliber in the field. In fact, he had a throwing arm that put the brakes on many baserunners trying to go from first to third on a single. He had this wonderful habit of charging ground balls like an infielder.
Even though Puckett hit .296 in his rookie year and .288 the following season, Twins' coach and former American League batting champion Tony Oliva felt that something was wrong. Certainly a guy who could bench-press 365 pounds could massage a few baseballs in the general direction of the planet Mars.
``My job was to approach Puckett and sell him on the idea of moving closer to the plate and teaching him how to turn on a ball so that he could drive it into home run territory,'' Oliva explained. ``The power was already there, it just hadn't been properly harnessed before. We also worked on patience and what different pitchers liked to throw in certain situations.''
From four home runs in 1985, Puckett raised his output to 31 in 1986, many of them tape-measure jobs. This year he leveled off at 28.
``Of course if Kirby hadn't hit all those home runs early, he might have gone back to his old stance and we'd never have gotten him turned around,'' Oliva added. ``But now that he knows he can pull the ball against almost any pitcher, he's got the confidence of a home run hitter.''
Unlike the situation with some sluggers, Puckett's newfound power hasn't been accompanied by any drop in overall hitting skill. On the contrary, his batting average leaped from .288 to .328 a year ago, and was .332 this past season.
Like most good hitters, Kirby is always checking his bats, flexing and reflexing his fingers against the thin barrel and making sure the balance feels just right.
Puckett is one of the first Twins to arrive at the ballpark, and one of the last to leave. His compactness, good nature, and enormous smile make him a fun guy to watch and a mascot-like crowd favorite. The little elves inside his bat have built some power plant, though, and no one who pitches against him would ever think of taking this dynamo lightly.