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Farewell, Kirby Puckett

If you say "Game 6" to a New York Mets fan, he or she knows immediately that you're either referencing the 1986 National League Championship Series or the 1986 World Series but will have to ask you which because the stories of both are equally astounding and amazing.

If you say "Game 6" to a Twins fan, there's only one contest to which you could be referring. A more appropriate title would be "Kirby's Game."

If I was going to rate the World Series I've seen in which my native city was uninvolved (DQ'ing any Mets or Yankees participation), the one that took place in 1991 would rank at the top.

That's easy to say from a blogging perspective because the series featured four walk-offs, including one by the Twins in the final game, a contest that should rank among the best baseball games ever played.

That Game 7 never would have been played were it not for what took place the night before, which should be considered as one of the best one-man shows ever to take place in a sport in which individual domination is rare.

I was reading some old newspaper articles about this game today and it reminded me a lot of Game 6 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals between the Rangers and Devils, in which Mark Messier guaranteed victory, than backed it up with three goals and an assist in a come-from-behind win.

Kirby Puckett wasn't quite feeling as bold as Messier to make such promises publicly, but on that October 26 day, he let his teammates and others in the organization know that, with his squad facing a 3 games to 2 deficit to the Atlanta Braves, that this was a day that he was going to carry them to victory and to a Game 7.

The first sign that Puckett was prophetic came in the bottom of the first inning, when after a one-out single by Chuck Knoublach, Puckett came up. People are so caught up by the ending of this game that they forget what happened at the beginning. Puckett hit a grounder over third base down the left field line, good for a double most days, but the ball took a funny carom and rolled back to the infield, guaranteeing Knoublach's run and allowing Puckett to take third. He'd score on a single by Shane Mack.

The Braves threatened to score in the third inning, but it was Puckett doing everything he possibly could to ensure that they didn't. With one out and a runner on first, Braves outfielder Ron Gant sent a shot to the gap in left center field. Puckett raced over, lept, and snared the ball as he banged into the part-plexiglass wall. Perhaps its an exaggeration to think of that as the "Willie Mays play" (1954 World Series Game 1, over the shoulder catch) of my generation, but I think that's a worthy comparison. The Braves didn't score that inning. They did tally twice in the fifth on a game-tying home run by Terry Pendleton.

The Twins quickly responded. Dan Gladden walked, stole second, and advanced to third when Chuck Knoublach lined to right. Baseball is a game that sometimes requires being at the right spot in the lineup at the right time. Go figure that it was Puckett's turn again. This time he hit a sacrifice fly to centerfield. Gladden came home with the go-ahead run. It was Puckett's second chance to put his team ahead and again he delivered.

The Braves tied the score again, this time in the seventh inning on a bases loaded groundout, but reliever Carl Willis struck out Dave Justice to keep the score even.

The Twins had a chance to go ahead in the eighth when Puckett singled, than stole second with two outs but Mike Stanton retired Shane Mack to halt the threat. So we went the long distance route on this night, into extra innings.

The Braves put the go-ahead run on base in the ninth, 10th and 11th, doing so against ex-Met Rick Aguilera, whose good fortune made him the winning pitcher in the Game 6 that took place five years and one day prior to this one. His good fortune also got him out of danger in the 10th when Ron Gant lined into a double play on a hit and run.

In the bottom of the 11th, Braves manager Bobby Cox made a decision that probably still haunts him to this day. After getting two innings from ace reliever Alejandro Pena, Cox pulled him in favor of lefthander Charlie Liebrandt. Liebrandt was the losing pitcher in Game 1, but twice struck out the leadoff hiter in the 11th, Puckett. The Twins had gone down in order in the 9th and 10th, leaving Puckett as first man up.

Liebrandt fell behind in the count 2-1 and then made the mistake of throwing a changeup that was too far up in the strike zone. Puckett crushed it. The highlight videos show the perspective from the wall and how the Braves outfielders quickly retreated, but they had no chance. Thus was born one of baseball's great walk-off home run calls: Jack Buck's "We'll see you tomorrow night!!!" The next night, the Twins beat the Braves 1-0 to win the World Series and elevate Puckett into the pantheon of heroes whose New York equivalent is Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.

I'm not going to get into how Puckett's Hall of Fame career ended in devastating fashion, when he developed glaucoma not long after being hit in the head by a pitch, how his image and reputation were tarnished by all sorts of awful allegations and a criminal trial (in which he was acquitted of assault). I just felt that today, on the day that Kirby Puckett died, that it was appropriate to pay tribute to the kind player and moment that makes doing a blog like this entertaining, interesting, and most importantly enjoyable


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