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Goodbye Kirby

03/18/06 12:00AM By Brian Porto
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(HOST) When commentator Brian Porto heard of the recent death of Baseball Hall-of-famer Kirby Puckett, he felt sad - both for loss of an outstanding athlete and also for the loss of a personal struggle.

(PORTO) Willie Nelson sings a song called "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys." My heroes have always been athletes, maybe because no cowboys rode the asphalt "prairies" of the New York suburb where I grew up.

Because of my affinity for athletes, I am inevitably saddened by the death of an athlete whom I followed during my childhood or my adulthood. That sadness is deepest when the athlete dies young or while struggling to adjust to life without sports. A deep sadness filled me recently upon learning of the death of former Minnesota Twins outfielder Kirby Puckett from a stroke at age forty-five.

Puckett probably would have been popular with Twins fans even if he had not been warm and friendly because he was immensely talented. A lifetime .318 hitter, he played in the All-Star Game ten times, won a Gold Glove for his fielding prowess six times, and led the Twins to World Series triumphs in 1987 and 1991. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2001, the first year he was eligible.

But Kirby Puckett was beloved, not just by Twins fans, but by baseball fans and players everywhere. Former Major Leaguer Dave Winfield said of him, "He was the only player in the history of baseball [that] everybody loved." Reflecting that sentiment, Puckett's plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame praises his "ever-present smile and infectious exuberance."

Athletic prowess is fleeting though. Poet A.E. Houseman knew that. In his famous poem "To An Athlete Dying Young," published in 1859, he wrote,

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.


Glaucoma forced Kirby Puckett into an early retirement from baseball in 1996. He struggled after that, experiencing a couple of brushes with the law and gaining a great deal of weight, which precipitated the stroke that took his life.

Despite my sadness at Kirby Puckett's demise, or perhaps because of that sadness, I hope that everyone, from owners of professional teams to athletic directors, coaches, and parents in Vermont, will learn from Puckett's life and death that sports should enhance life, not consume it. Unless sports teach skills that are useful throughout a lifetime, they fail their participants, even the Hall-of-Famers. Sports surely failed Kirby Puckett, and even if he hadn't been an All-Star, that would be reason enough to mourn his death.

This is Brian Porto of Windsor.

Brian Porto is an attorney and a free lance writer.
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