Puckett enshrined in Cal League Hall of Fame
visalia – Twenty-two years after Kirby Puckett last stepped foot on a baseball diamond, the legendary Visalia Oaks player will be inducted into the Cal League Hall of Fame. Joining him in the class of 2017 is Mike Pizza, Tony La Ruso, Doug Harvey, Dave Duncan.
“We’re honored to be able to host the induction ceremony for this class of exceptional California League alumni, said Rawhide’s general manager Jennifer Pendergraft Reynolds in a press release.
Puckett was a player who took the then Visalia Oaks by storm during his only season with the team in 1983. During that season, Puckett hit an astounding 172 hits on his way to a .314 batting average. Of his total hits, 45 were for extra bases, including nine home runs. Puckett also showcased his base running ability successfully stealing 48 bases out of 59 tries.
That season, the Oaks, then the single-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, finished a with an overall record of 87-53.
Puckett’s clutch skills, which would later lead him to the Hall of Fame, were on display even back then. But what was even more evident on the field was his youthful enthusiasm. Which was impressive given that where he grew up was anything but uplifting.
Born on March 14, 1960, Puckett grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes housing project along with his parents William and Catherine Puckett and his eight older siblings. The row of broken-down apartments that housed the family for the first 12 years of Puckett’s life were nicknamed by locals “the place where hope dies.”
However, growing up in that place did put Puckett within a mile of Comiskey Park, where the Chicago White Sox’s still play to this day. That allowed baseball to consume him and block out the gangs and drugs that were ever-present in the apartments.
While Puckett longed to play his beloved sport, the lack of little league fields where he lived kept him from playing on an organized team until he entered high school. In those early days, Puckett was seen drawing out a strike zone with chalk on a building wall and repeatedly throwing a ball against it. While at Calumet High School, Puckett received all-American honors. But Puckett was basically overlooked by pro scouts. At five feet, eight inches, Puckett was considered too small for professional baseball.
That did not stop him, though. He tried out for the Kansas City Royals. While Puckett was not signed by the Royals his bat speed did catch the eye of Bradley University and was offered a scholarship. While there Puckett received ALL-Missouri Valley Conference honors as an outfielder. But Puckett only stayed at Bradley for one year before he left due to the death of his father.
Later he returned to the baseball diamond for the Triton College Trojans. While only playing for them in the 1982 season, Puckett’s name can still be found in the baseball record books for hits and at-bats with 120 and 254, respectively. The stadium in which the Trojans play still bears his name.
After that 1982 season, Puckett was drafted by the Minnesota Twins as the third over-all pick. He was one of nine players drafted from that Trojan team. In 1984, Puckett’s playing time in the minor leagues came to an end when he was called up to join the Twin’s AAA-Affiliate the Toledo Mud Hens.
In his debut on May 8, 1984 against the California Angels, Puckett went 4-5 with a stolen base. That season, he had 165 hits and finished with a batting average of .296. That however, was just a taste of what was to come for the future Hall of Famer.
Puckett spent most of his time playing center field, where he won six Gold Gloves and was named to 10 consecutive All-Star games from 1986 to 1995. He received the most valuable player honors in the 1993 game.
Puckett’s greatest achievements of his career came when he led the Twins to two World Series titles in 1987 and 1991. And if he wasn’t beloved by the Twins’ faithful before game six of the 1991 World Series he was viewed as a hero after he hit a walk-off homer run to beat the Braves 4-3 to force a game seven.
In 1995, Puckett’s career was cut short due to irreversible retina damage in his right eye caused by glaucoma.
Still, his career stats of a 3.18 batting average, 2,304 hits, 1,071 runs, and 134 stolen bases earned him a spot in Cooperstown on his first ballot in 2001.
Puckett died on March 6, 2006 at the age of 45 from complications after a stroke.