Minnesota's little round man wasn't the prototype of a baseball player - at least not on the outside. But he was the model ballplayer inside - his fiery enthusiasm for the sport made him one of the best-loved players in baseball history.
At the peak of his career, he was the game's best: after the 1989 season Puckett became the first player in baseball history to sign a contract for $3 million per year. But it was his longtime loyalty to the small-market Minnesota franchise that inspired fierce devotion from Twins fans. In 1992 he passed up more lucrative offers to re-sign with the Twins, and in 1995 he turned down the opportunity to become a free agent altogether. His enthusiasm and humility — he drove to the ballpark every day in an old pickup truck made him one of the most universally respected players of his generation.
He was not a power hitter — he knocked out 207 during his shortened 12-year career — but hit .318, over his and led the Minnesota Twins to two unlikely World Championships. He was also a deft and strong-armed outfielder, with 6 Gold Gloves to show for it. A free swinger, he got over 2,300 hits in his career but drew just 450 walks. His .318 batting average is the best mark for a right-handed hitter since Joe DiMaggio. His impressive legacy also includes a batting title, an RBI title, five seasons of more than 200 hits, and seven seasons in the top 10 in MVP voting. Puckett's 2,040 hits in his first ten seasons are the most in baseball history.
On September 28, 1995, Puckett was hit in the face by a Dennis Martinez fastball, leaving him bloodied with a shattered jaw. The injury marked the end of both his season and, as it turned out, his career. The following spring Puckett batted .360, but on March 28, the last day of training camp, he woke up unable to see out of his right eye. He was diagnosed with glaucoma, and four eye surgeries in a four-month span did nothing to improve his vision. On July 12, 1996, Puckett, wearing a white patch over his right eye, announced his retirement from baseball. He was 36 years old.
"I was told I would never make it because I'm too short. Well, I'm still too short, but I've got 10 All-Star games, two World Series championships, and I'm a very happy and contented guy. It doesn't matter what your height is, it's what's in your heart."
— Kirby Puckett, at his retirement press conference
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