Column: Heroes are held up to a higher standard

Posted: Sunday, January 12, 2003

The large, bold letters of the newspaper headline stared ominously back at me. A wave of grief passed through my body - the same feeling you get when you first hear of the death of a close friend or family member. A part of me died the day I read the story.

I read on in disbelief: "Kirby Puckett charged with felony sexual assault and false imprisonment." It had to be a mistake. Not the great humanitarian. Not baseball's most lovable player. Not the Roberto Clemente Man of the Year. Not my hero. Not Kirby!

But it was Kirby, and it was true.

I still can vividly remember the spring day I first laid eyes upon my hero. Turn the clock back to May 8, 1984. I was 13 years old, in the prime of impressionable, innocent youth but already with a great love of baseball.

I spent that Tuesday evening playing one-on-one baseball in the back yard with one of my boyhood friends like we did almost every Minnesota evening. The apple tree and the vegetable garden were the foul lines, the bases were lined up in a cockeyed diamond, and a home run had to clear two tall pines lining the back fence.

We took a break and went inside to get a drink and watch some of the Twins game on television. The "Twinkies," as we fondly referred to them, were perennial cellar-dwellers at the time. Long past were the days of Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva and Rod Carew. A new crop of players were beginning their careers with names like Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky and Kent Hrbek.

On that day, another new player showed his face after being called up from the Triple-A Toledo Mudhens. I can still picture him walking to the plate for his first major league at-bat and I remember the chuckles coming from everyone in the room. This short, rotund guy with a pudgy face did not look like a professional baseball player, but he got into the box and slapped a hit into left field.

By the end of the game, Kirby had accumulated three more hits and became just the ninth player in baseball history to have four hits in his first major league game. It was the beginning of something special, and that "something" would have a major impact on my life.

The Twinkies were almost always a lousy team. They struggled for many reasons - bad management, cheap owners, rotten pitching and fair-weather fans to name just a few. But I watched and listened to them religiously. I almost never missed a game because they were my team, win or lose.

It did not take long for Kirby to become my favorite player - and my hero. Three years later, the unthinkable happened as the Twins defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, marking one of the greatest Cinderella stories in sports history.

I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime event, but they did it again four years later. The 1991 World Series was even sweeter than the first championship. It proved that my team was not a fluke, but genuine, and Kirby led the way.

His most shining moment came in Game 6 of that World Series against the Atlanta Braves. He went 3-for-4 and made a leaping catch off the Metrodome Plexiglas, robbing Ron Gant of a sure extra-base hit. Kirby became the ninth player to end a World Series game with a home run on the final pitch when he hit one off Charlie Leibrandt in the 11th inning to force a seventh game.

I have a videotape of that game and I still replay that home run from time to time. The bobble-head doll of Kirby with his fist in the air, emulating that home run, sits atop my television as a permanent reminder of that magical moment. On the ceramic base it states: "World Series Hero."

During spring training before the 1996 season, Kirby awoke with blurred vision caused by glaucoma. The medical condition forced him to announce his early retirement, but his peers honored him five years later with an induction into baseball's Hall of Fame.

Respect is something that is earned, and Kirby had earned my respect on the field and off. Until the day I read the November 2002 St. Paul Pioneer Press article, I had never heard anyone - other than bitter, rival fans - utter a bad word about the man.

As the weeks went by, more information came out on my hero. The next story, titled "The Secret Life of Kirby Puckett," was a long piece documenting one instance after another of Kirby's improprieties. How could I have been so deceived?

It's a difficult revelation to come to grips with. A person who was held in the highest regards by not only me, but also millions of other people, had fallen from grace. My whole belief system was shattered.

My initial reaction was one of disgust and betrayal. I felt as if Kirby had some sort of obligation to others and myself to be a fine, upstanding individual. The thought of taking down the bobble-head doll crossed my mind more than once. Looking at it brought very different emotions than it had before.

I believed that a hero is someone who you try to emulate, or someone who gives you the inspiration that helps you through all of life's trials. I was forced to do some soul-searching in a way. What will Kirby mean to me now that I know he did these offensive things?

It took some time, but I came to a conclusion of understanding. Although my perception of him has changed, maybe it has changed for the better. For the first time, I saw my hero no longer as larger-than-life, but as human and filled with flaws like myself and everyone else. I cannot simply forget about his accomplishments and about how they shaped me as a person.

Our society holds sports figures, or anyone in the public eye, to a higher standard. These people may be our idols and heroes, but we must never forget that they are human like everyone else - susceptible to temptation and making the wrong decisions.

If I were to see Kirby today, I would still view him in the same awe that I have all my life. In a strange way, I almost feel closer to this man knowing now that he is not super-human, but a regular human being, much like myself.

The championship banners that hang from the ceiling of the Metrodome will forever remind me of the time when No. 34 reigned supreme in baseball. Nobody can take away his accomplishments, and nobody has the right to judge. Let he without sin cast the first stone. I cannot.

I just hope the powers-at-be will come to the same conclusion as me and never take away what Kirby accomplished in 12 short years. When the reunions come around, I expect Kirby to take his place at the head of the table with that smile that made all of baseball fall in love with him. It would be shameful for him to be denied future recognition due to simply being human.

Jeff Kasper is a former Empire sportswriter and freelance writer. He can be reached at 463-4645.

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