By Scoop Jackson
Page 2

I have two friends. One named Mike, the other Leah.

One I met in 1982, the other in 1998. They don't know each other, lives never had reason to cross. They come from two different parts of the spectrum, two different parts of the world. But they were connected. Not through me, but through someone much bigger.


More Stories
Hall of Fame outfielder Kirby Puckett died at the age of 45. He was a 10-time All-Star and won two World Series rings in 12 seasons with the Twins.

• Puckett dead at 45 ... ESPN Motion
Wiley: Trial and error
• Caple: No one as likeable as Puck
• Stark: Greatness personified
• Gammons: Remembering Puck Insider
Transcript: 911 call
• Kurkjian: A game for the ages
• Puckett's highs and lows ESPN Motion
• SportsNation: Your memories?
• Gallery: Puckett in photos
• Hall of Fame:
Election | Induction | Speech
• Career: Highlights | Statistics
When the news came, shock followed. Kirby Puckett dead at age 45.

I figured it would be like Luther Vandross' situation. The news broke of a stroke, but there would be light at the end of the tunnel, some saving grace. There'd be days, months of rehab; a Peter Gammons piece on "SportsCentury"; the S.L. Price epic. I figured that it would be drawn out, that we'd all have time to say goodbye, even though goodbye was something we were never trying to say. I never expected ... this.

But unlike Luther, Kirby's stroke took him away immediately. Which justifies the shock, almost magnifying it. As I told my wife Sunday, "Kirby had a stroke, he'll be alright in a few days I'm sure." Little did I know.

My friend Mike grew up with Kirby. They went to college together. Loved baseball together. They hung.

Ever since I met Mike in 1982, I've heard stories of Kirby Puckett. Personal stories. Stories of barbecues at Kirby's crib, stories of fishing on Kirby's boat. Through Mike, I knew Kirby.

Knew the type of brotha he was, knew the type of people he surrounded himself with. Mike would always say, "Scoop, he reminds me of you."

Being from Chicago, we'd already heard of Kirby before he hit big in the Bigs. Even those who didn't follow baseball knew what he did at Calumet High School, knew what he did downstate at Bradley University, knew that he was going to be the city's baseball version of Ricky Green.

Little did we know.

So when 1984 came around and he was drafted third overall, and 2½ years later, by the end of the '86 season, he was being considered one of the best players in the game, Mike's stories took on a whole 'nother level of specialness. Especially since they didn't change.

Big time? No. Conceited? Never. Gone Major League? Nada. Kirby, through Mike's stories, was the same guy. Same cat. Same 39th and Michigan from the neighborhood type dude.

So in 1987, when he won his first ring, he moved past Ricky Green into Isiah Thomas territory. Then the contract came, $3 million per, the highest per year in baseball history at the time. Then he put the last-to-first Twins on his back in '91. Into the Series. Game 6. The catch, the homer, the Troph. The move past Isiah.

Through Mike's stories, Puckett was a literal legend in the making. But to Mike, it was no big deal. Kirby was still Kirby. And that's all that mattered. He just happened to become the best player in baseball.


In 1998, while working at XXL, I met Leah.

She was working at another magazine. She was from Minnesota.

In 2003, seven years after that day-to-night incident of glaucoma instantly ended Puckett's career, when Frank Deford's bombshell "The Rise and Fall of Kirby Puckett" dropped in Sports Illustrated, I remember Leah almost breaking down.

She told stories of the impact Puckett had on the city and how whatever was being written couldn't be true. I remember being able to tell by the tone in her voice that there was sickness in her stomach. I remember thinking: "This is harder on her than it is on Mike."

And Leah didn't even know Kirby Puckett.

But just as I lived vicariously through Mike's stories, Leah lived vicariously through his heroics. Being from Minnesota, there was an element of hero worshipping that most other baseball cities had gone through in the past. Cincinnati had Rose, Pittsburgh had Stargell, New York had Mattingly. And the Twin Cities finally got theirs in the package of a 5-foot-8, 215-pound, first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Only one person there got more love. And Leah, a baseball fan not fanatic, explained the reverence in which Puckett was held in Minneapolis, in this sentence: "There's Prince, then there's Kirby."

Past Morris Day territory.

And as the saga of Kirby Puckett's post-baseball life was unveiled, I learned through her how deep the impact was. So deep that not even Kevin Garnett could restore her faith to embrace a single athlete. So deep that Minnesota may never be able to put that degree of love into another human being again. The letdown was too much for them to handle.

Yet the love for Puckett was still in Leah's voice whenever the subject of Kirby came up. And according to other people I met from Minnesota -- Cherise, Matt, Derek, Brandon, etc.-- during this time, Leah was not alone. Kirby was still Kirby. And that's all that mattered. He just happened to become the son of a city.


I wanted to call both Mike and Leah when I heard that Kirby Puckett crossed over. Every flashback I had of Puckett directed me back to them.

I wanted to make sure they were all right, even though I knew they weren't. For different reasons and through different paths, the lives of two people I care about are directly affected by the end of Kirby Puckett's life. The role Kirby Puckett played in both of their lives embodies the country's loss as it lays its fallen hero to rest.

Through two people, I learned to love Kirby Puckett in a way that I never would have otherwise. Because even though Mike Kelly, who is now an executive for the national Jackie Robinson League, and Leah Miller, who is an advertising sales director for Miller Publishing Group, don't know each other, they do have something besides my six-degrees of separation in common.

They both had major love for one of the greatest players in Major League history that had nothing to do with baseball.

Which tells more of a true story about Kirby Puckett's life than anything anyone could have written.

Scoop Jackson is a national columnist for Page 2 and a contributor to ESPN:The Magazine. He has weekly segments on Cold Pizza and Classic Now and is a regular forum guest on Rome Is Burning. He resides in Chicago. You can e-mail Scoop here. Sound off to Page 2 here.




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STILL KIRBY