Trial and error
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

    "Tell me: When a dark side is revealed in a man, does that render all the good that man did as untrue?"

Good God, man, isn't it too early in the morning to have existential questions like that one boomeranged back in your face? I might've known Bob Costas would do that.

Kirby Puckett
Many remember Kirby as the Hall of Famer whose career was cut short by injury.
That's what Bob did the other morning when I called him up to interrupt his breakfast and find out if he had named his son after Kirby Puckett, and what he thought now, if he had. This was days after Puckett was exonerated by a jury of his peers, found not guilty of false imprisonment, fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct and fifth-degree assault, after having been charged with forcing a woman into a men's restroom and fondling her up in Minneapolis.

Sounds like the beginning of a sequel to "Fargo," with Puck playing the weird Asian guy, but no, sadly, it's all too true. Or true enough. Puckett could've done a year, max, if he'd been found guilty. He's legally blind with advanced glaucoma -- several wags had mentioned to me that, if nothing else, his defense could be he couldn't actually see this woman, and thought she was one of the concubines formerly on payroll. Ye-ouch, Puck.

To set this up, I've known Bob for 15 years or so, was once a rogue colleague of his, over at NBC, and of Frank Deford, for that matter, over at the Illy. Frank wrote about Puckett in a recent cover story of the Illy. This story in the Illy gave me pause, even though I am no big Kirby Puckett fan (you know how it goes -- this disaffection of mine for all that is Kirby didn't reflect any reality but my own). I'm a National League guy, basically, was a Braves guy, back then, and still a Smoltzie guy, now; but this was in 1991, back when Jack the Cat stuck it up the Bravos' collective keister and outpitched Smoltz, in spite of his ungodly stuff, and the Twinks won the World Series not once, but twice.

The first time, against White Rat and the Cards, in '87, I didn't mind so much. Tom Kelly was a good manager. So they could have that one. But the one in '91, the one Kirby won with his home run hijinks, the one Lonnie Smith lost with unprofessional baserunning -- that one hurted. Not hurt. Hurted. Know what I mean? Makes you hate a guy, or, if you're more highly evolved, just not care for him.

Think about that. You "hate" a guy in sports because he's hurt you. He's hurt your team. That's why you hate him, basically because he's done a good job for his team, and made some other people deliriously happy.

"Hating" him has nothing to do with the actual guy.

You don't know the actual guy.

Think about this: Same thing goes when you "love" a guy.

You don't know him then either. He's helped your team win. He's helped your philosophy, your way of life, you.

But you don't know him. So don't act like you do.

The train was already rolling by 1987. Puckett had come into his own as a Minnesota Twin. The All-Star Game was in Oakland. Some of my friendly colleagues and wolfpack brethren were there -- Nicky Dawidoff, Steve Wulf, Bruce Jenkins, Ray Ratto, Gammons, scads of them. I'd done a cover piece on Eric Davis of the Cincinnati Reds for the Illy. E was in the outfield shagging with Rock Raines, and Nicky asked me who I'd rather have as my center fielder, just as Kirby came out to shag. I nodded over to E.

Kirby Puckett
Everyone felt for Kirby when he had to leave the game.
I'd gotten some heat from the cover story on Davis. E kept his head at a high, proud angle, kind of like Clemente, and was jumping over centerfield walls catching drives, sort of like Mays, and balls made a particular sound jumping off his bat, like Aaron, sort of. Now, ED felt he had been held down in the minors for way too long. If I could do some of the things that he could do, I would have felt that way too; so would you. He finally made it up for good when he was almost 28 years old. He felt some coaches in the chain were either bigoted, blind or both, they'd tried to turn him into a Willie Wilson-clone, chop-down-on-it, leg-hit, pseudo-fraud, and he said so. He could hit a ball 450 feet on a line.

He also said of his father, "He didn't leave, she left," speaking bitterly of his parents' divorce. He was just dead-level honest with me, and I tried to understand him. Like any sensible person in my line of work, I wrote some of that up. Later, some colleagues (not the ones named above), instead of recognizing the humanity of the young man from south-central L.A., said it was too bad ED was not as good a guy as Kirby, too bad some people carried around the environment they grew up in.

This struck me first as good -- readers reacted. Then it was odd -- everybody carries around the environment they grew up in. Just a question of overcoming it, for the most part. We're all human beings. We aren't Evanston. We aren't Malibu. We aren't Fort Greene or Coney Island. We're just human.

I didn't think Kirby was a Valentine Day's cherub by comparison, knowing the South Side of Chicago as I did. Figured Kirb had his own issues. If you thought he didn't, well, good job on Kirby's part, getting you to think that.

End of story? Not. Life's bigger than any magazine piece.

Kirby touched people. Like Bob Costas. Kirby met Bob, and they had hit it off well by that very same year of 1987. Kirby was that kind of guy: gregarious, likeable -- at least he was if you weren't a good-looking hon, and the two of you weren't alone. Maybe he grew horns, a pitchfork and a tail then, I don't know. Some men do. He liked women, and apparently he liked to think he had some magic with them.

We wouldn't know anything about that, though, would we?

Kirby told Bob if the child Bob's wife was carrying was a boy or a girl, they should name the child Kirby. Costas, an unregenerate baseball fan, knew Kirby had hit .296 the year before, so he said if Kirby was hitting .350 when the child was born, he'd consider it. So when the boy was born and Kirby was hitting .370, Costas gave his son Keith two middle names, the second of which was Kirby.

"It wasn't like he was my idol or anything," Costas said, "and it wasn't like I wholly named my son after him. Frank just made an honest mistake on that. I talk about going to see Mickey Mantle as a kid with my dad, but he wasn't my idol. Mickey was my baseball hero. Same with Kirby. Hey, listen, I love the guy. Look, I'm disappointed that all these people with axes to grind against Kirby got their day. It was kind of disturbing to me that it was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in such damning fashion as there was a criminal proceeding hanging over his head. Look, I have no quarrel with Frank Deford for writing the article, but I don't want to sound like I'm distancing myself from Kirby Puckett. Like I said, I loved the guy." Costas told me all this now.

"The World Series the Twins won with him were thrilling. I saw him at games, Hall of Fame events, he had a charity event in Minnesota he and his wife hosted that I MC'ed. A lot of baseball people came to it, Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray, Junior Griffey, Paul Molitor, David Justice, various Twins. Thousands became baseball fans because of Kirby Puckett. The size, the shape of him, the exuberence. He was friendly, good-natured, patient with kids, he signed autographs. I just prefer to root for people who are not apparently horses' asses. Why wouldn't you like Kirby Puckett, rather than say, Eddie Murray? Ahmad lived there in Minneapolis for years, and he didn't know, either. None of us knew anything of any of this.

Eric Davis
Despite his ability to overcome adversity, a single magazine article defined Davis.
"I'm in no position to evaluate the evidence presented in court, I have to trust the jury who found him innocent of all charges. You hope he can get his life straightened out. If he was just a bad guy, period, this wouldn't be so complex, but there's so much that is worthwhile about the guy ..."

Worthwhile or not, maybe you shouldn't publish a damning and cautionary tale -- albeit an extremely well-told damning and cautionary tale -- like the one Frank told about Puckett, while a man, worthwhile or not, is up on charges that could put him in jail for a year and make him a felon for life.

Maybe you should wait, run the piece when it's over.

The problem here is not so much with Kirby Puckett. He is what he is, and he's done what he's done. He'll live with that. Fate, balance, Nature and God will shape his future.

The problem is us, as Frank concluded, but also beyond that. The problem is not only us, embracing a man for his performance in our service, then being disappointed by his human clay-footedness; the problem is in us coming back and judging him guiltily in a national hook-up like the Illy while he's on trial. That's ... a little dangerous. Some might say that's part of celebrity, and celebrity got Kirby Puckett or any celebrity off in court, and you can't have it both ways.

Still, something is a little bit unseemly about it, and ironic -- the universally-beloved Puck wound up disappointing so many people, to the point of them publishing articles about him that could be used as Exhibit A in the D.A.'s case.

There is no problem at all with Frank's conclusion, which is basically the same as H.L. Mencken's -- you will never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Poor us. A bunch of cheering suckers, the lot.

Basically true.

It's a conclusion that could've been drawn, and possibly more effectively drawn, in the sense of the story having an actual ending -- the verdict -- rather than a philosophical one.

They used to say the Illy was the Bible. Not saying that the writing had anything to do with it back then. They said it was written in stone, just because it was written in the Illy. Maybe they still say that. But the Illy, or "60 Minutes," or even Page 2, ain't God. We are storytellers, an amalgam of journalists, entertainers, poets, jugglers and dodge artists. We sling ink and binary bytes. This does not make us the Supreme Court justices we sometimes like to think we are.

Look deep enough into anybody's life, you'll find another fine mess in there somewhere. You'll find a story to tell.

The question is, to me -- what do you do with it then?

All I know for sure is, there's an awful lot of crap written and said about who's a good guy and who's a bad guy, a bunch of unknowledgeable, exploitive, easy-bake crap, crap that comes down so heavy sometimes I feel like I should wear a hat ... racial, immature, jealous human crap.

In the end, over time, by fate, God, life, whatever you want to call it, a denouement always comes that is instructive.

Here are the facts as we stand today, not about Puckett's tendency toward having chatty mistresses, assignations or fits of serial groping, not about his career batting average, or his catch at the plexiglass wall in the '91 World Series.

Kirby Puckett
With the Twins and his family gone, Kirby is now in the company of his attorney.
(Oh, by the way, ED made far, far better catches than that one, in fact split a kidney and nearly bled to death after trying to make a catch in the Series in Oakland in '90 in Game 4. E lived, though, then retired, then came back, then beat colon cancer with the Orioles, came back in the same season, helped them into the '96 playoffs, then hit a dong in the playoffs against the Indians, the same season he finished chemo, then had a 30-game hitting streak, longest in Orioles history, the next season. He has two teenaged daughters he loves, and his wife Sherrie is Mama, and E says he ain't going nowhere without Mama -- "He didn't leave, she left" -- even though E was a man, with all that implies. But even with all that, he never could overcome people's reaction to that cover story I wrote on him in the Illy; he was simply viewed as a brooding malcontent. Such is the power of a single article in the Illy. As for me, I just saw it as him being honest with me that one day. I'll take an honest man over one perpetually grinning at me any day.)

I'll take E in center over Kirby, too, if you must know.

Vengeance is not the Illy's, or yours, or mine, or even the editors', here at Page 2. You know whose it is, don't you?

Kirby Puckett has blown up like a hot-air balloon since he left baseball in 1996. He always seemed as wide as he was tall, and that was cute and unique for a big-league center fielder. But now, he is stop-and-stare huge. He wheezes like a Viennese accordion when he breathes. Once they called him "Ebonite," as in bowling ball, when he played; now he's so fat as to almost seem deformed, like a sin, like he can expect a visit from Kevin Spacey in "Seven" any time now, like he's a walking health risk. His right eye is nothing but a slit, due to the glaucoma; he has no neck left, plus, he was hit above the left eye by an errant Dennis Martinez pitch in 1995.

Puckett had to leave baseball before his time. Somebody or something beyond us is always keeping score. Even the Twinks have given him the gate as a quasi-executive. I asked Bob Costas if he thought being prematurely retired as a player seemed to change Kirby Puckett. Bob said he couldn't tell; the weight gain made him wonder if, deep down, Kirby didn't have issues.

Yeah. Don't we all.

It's one thing to be human, with a telling life story.

It's another thing to have it told while you're on trial.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."



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