Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Late, Great Kirby Puckett

By B.E. Earl

Hey kids! Sad news this week from the world of baseball. Kirby Puckett, Hall of Fame centerfielder for the Minnesota Twins, died after suffering a stroke. Kirby was one of those players that made you love the game of baseball. His reckless abandon in the outfield, his huge grin and his semi-ridiculous body just made you want to smile when you saw him play. He was the centerpiece of a Twins team that won two World Series and he was a ten-time participant in the All-Star game. Yet, something has always bothered me about his first ballot selection to the Hall of Fame back in 2001.

It wasn’t the subsequent talk about his off-field problems. I’m not here to talk about that. Maybe he wasn’t as much of a “good guy” as baseball folks liked to think he was when he was playing, but the Hall of Fame voters ultimately shouldn’t decide whether or not someone is a “good guy” before voting him into the most hallow of Halls. The Hall is filled with players and managers that wouldn’t even come close to having “good guy” credentials in their resumes. And I certainly won’t go into details about the allegations about his character now that he has passed away. I don’t mean any disrespect to the man himself.

No. What I have a problem with was the automatic assumption that he was a first ballot HoFer after he retired early due to glaucoma, and the fact that assumption was proven to be correct in 2001. Take a look at Kirby’s career statistics alongside those of a contemporary of his whose career was also cut short due to a medical condition.

G
AB
Hits
HR
RBI
Runs
BB
BA
OBP
SLG
Kirby
1783
7244
2304
207
1085
1071
450
.318
.360
.477
Player A
1785
7003
2153
222
1099
1007
588
.307
.358
.471

You might find it impossible to find two players whose career numbers come any closer than these two guys. And yet, Kirby was a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame while Player A has never seriously been given consideration for the Hall. Let’s look at some other stats, shall we:

WS Titles
MVP Awards
All-Star Games
Gold Gloves
Black Ink
Kirby
2
0
10
6
22
Player A
0
1
6
9
23

For those of you unfamiliar with the term “Black Ink” it refers to the number of times said player led the league an offensive category (Hits, BA, SLG, etc…). Kirby did possess two World Series rings as opposed to none for Player A, but I’ve always felt that argument to be a little weak. Post-season success has much more to do with team success rather than individual achievement. Player A has the one MVP award, however, Kirby did place as high as second in the voting once and third in the voting twice. Both players have an impressive record of All-Star appearances and Gold Glove recognition. So its got to be the post-season success that made voters hold one of these players in such high esteem, while the other is thought to be just short. Right? Take a look at their post-season stats.

G
AB
Hits
HR
RBI
Runs
BB
BA
OBP
SLG
Kirby
24
97
30
5
15
16
8
.309
.361
.536
Player A
5
24
10
1
6
3
1
.417
.440
.708

Kirby certainly played a helluva lot more in the post-season than Player A, but when he did get the chance to play in the post-season Player A’s statistics were astronomical. And those numbers came in his last season as a professional when his skills had dramatically declined due to his previously mentioned medical issues. Who knows the gaudy numbers he could have put up had his team made the playoffs in any of his previous seasons in the big leagues?

So why the discrepancy when it comes to Hall of Fame votes? The answer is I honestly don’t know, but most analysts point to Kirby’s post-season success and heroics. Everyone mentions the home run he hit in Game 6, which allowed the Twins to take the World Series one game later. Very nice, but is it a career defining moment that makes him stand head and shoulders above Player A? And like I stated before, I think World Series titles are a testament to the team rather than the individual, but what the hell do I know.

For those of you who aren’t fans of the New York Yankees, Player A is none other than fan favorite Don Mattingly. To go on the record here, I don’t believe that EITHER player belongs in the hall. They were both great players, both considered to be sure-fire HoFers at the height of their careers. Both, however, were sadly forced to retire early due to their medical conditions. Glaucoma for Kirby Puckett and chronic back problems for Don Mattingly. 10 or 12 years, in my opinion, is just not long enough of a career to allow consideration into the Hall of Fame in most cases. Sandy Koufax is one of the exceptions to the rule. I think both Puckett and Mattingly come up just short.

The baseball world mourns the loss of Kirby Puckett, as it rightly should. Fan favorite and media darling that he was, he will be sorely missed. Maybe the timing of my argument against his induction into the Hall of Fame is a bit off. I’m sure it could anger some of his family, friends and fans that are faced with pain of his passing. I’m sorry for that, I truly am. Baseball, in the end, is just a small part of a man’s life and accomplishments. They should mourn the loss of the man, not the player.

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