HATING THE SINNER
Frank Deford hates Kirby Puckett.
If there is anything to be taken from "The Rise and Fall of Kirby Puckett" (Sports Illustrated, March 17), it is that. The article, which has been the cause of much unrest here in the Twin Cities, is well researched (probably by special reporter George Dorhmann), and its facts are most certainly true. As every Twins fan now knows, Kirby Puckett is much less of a person than was originally thought. Without going into the details, it appears that Puckett is abusive, dangerously self-centered, and probably mentally ill. That having been said, it would be wonderful if Deford's article on Kirby Puckett were a cautionary tale, a story of how we should be careful about who we choose as heroes. Even better would be one suggesting that we increase our vigil when it comes to uncovering domestic violence, pursuing the perpetrators (no matter how famous), and supporting the victims. The problem is, Frank Deford's article is not about any of those things. It is about finding someone to condemn.
To us, Kirby Puckett never left much of an impression, other than a disgruntled acknowledgement that he was a good ballplayer. Back home in Michigan, the Twins were, at first, boring
that is, until 1987, when those bastards deprived the most exciting Tigers club in modern history from a thrilling repeat of the '68 World Series against St. Louis. Boredom quickly boiled away into a slit-eyed hatred, probably the same feelings that Red Sox fans have for the Yanks. Later, when we were rooting for Atlanta in '91, it was that jerk Kirby Puckett who slammed the home run that won game six. If anything, he was frustrating in his success. We didn't pay any attention to his good deeds (in part due to the fact that he was in Minnesota no Michigan) because almost everyone does good deedswhy would it any better just because Kirby Puckett did them?
But Minnesotans worshipped Puckett. At least that's what we're reading and hearing in the news and on the web. Deford's expose relies heavily on this, taken to an incredible extreme. The story opens with his typically overblown prose on the wonders of Kirby Puckett (to ready us for a great downfall), and the scenes that follow establish, with Spielbergian mawkishness, the idyllic state of Minnesota, whose innocent citizens are about to get the thrashing of their lives. According to the wise Mr. Deford, the good folks of the frigid north loved Puckett not just because he was a great ballplayer, but because he graced us with his presence year-round. In fact, we're a group of people so obsessed about having celebrities live amongst us that we're willing to elect a pro wrestler simply because he "continued to grace us with his fame" (Prince, take note for your Senate run).
Puckett, he writes, was one whale of a ballplayer, which is only the beginning of a number of nasty references to Puckett's weight (and the only subtle onethe rest include 'fat little Kirby Puckett', 'roly-poly', and conclude with a bizarre paragraph in which he states that Puckett's playing weight was 'cute, like icing on his persona', yet now 'he's just plain fat', followed by the psychological reasons why). Overweight readers beware: apparently, your size is a reflection of an innate nastiness. Deford is not above name calling, nor is he above giving us a roller-coaster ride of extremes: Puckett is evil, and everyone that came into contact with him, good. This is not to say that he should have dug up dirt on Tonya Puckett or Laura Nygren. Nor do we really feel the need to have heard from one of Puckett's star-crossed friends (for there's always one of these, usually less than reliable). Truth is, Deford doesn't care about the former Mrs. Puckett or Ms. Nygren. Rarely have we seen an article that has two people painted in such broad strokes: Tonya the beautiful wife speaking through tears and Nygren (who Deford couldn't even give a warm description of) complaining bitterly. From this stilted prose, you can't get a sense of them as even being realthey aren't any deeper than the victims you might find in the first ten minutes of "Law and Order".
Deford can't write about real women, because he's not interested in a real story. Cliches have no value in a story like this, for even a figure of so-called 'evil' should have a decent side, otherwise there's no 'fall'
even Al Stump knew that in his great biography of Ty Cobb. Deford shows Kirby Puckett as a man of statistics and baseball achievement, but without any real personality save for his white-hot nastiness. Wouldn't it have been worse if we'd seen a man who was capable of some degree of tenderness, either to his wife or children? Often that is what is most perplexing about abusive men: their capacity to give, at odd intervals, some degree of affection. But to do that would require an investigation into people, and it is far easier to drag an abstract hero off a pedestal. With his usual overstated metaphors, Deford is only interested in clubbing the former hero that he, a sportswriter, helped create.
Baseball fans have to go about their daily lives when the game is over, mingling amongst ourselves, without benefit of the personalities of the sports stars. True, we all know that person who defines 'fanatic', the type of man or woman who paints their house in Packers yellow and green, who claims they'd let Sammy Sosa baby-sit their children, and who lives day in and day out for ESPN. But most people in today's world enjoy sports and look up to its heroes with a good degree of reservation, something that Deford doesn't seem to understand. Does attacking Puckett help to break the thick veneer that covers our naïve brains? So Puckett hated seeing children in the hospitals
what does exposing this accomplish except to make the readerand especially the writerfeel as if they are superior to Kirby Puckett? It certainly cannot help the children who may have believed in him. Or are we supposed to think that this is a suggestion that we shouldn't elevate these men into heroes? Wouldn't it be more effective then to write articles about the players who haven't fallen, like Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn? It may come as a surprise to Frank Deford that many of us see heroes every single day, teaching, policing, volunteering at crisis hotlines, helping out during floods, or even just performing the small courtesies that mean so much in a hard world. Ripken and Gwynn are, perhaps, good men, but they're simply ballplayers.
But sportswriters need to make heroes and create villains. Working amongst the players day after day, the media gets a first hand account of a their personality, good and bad, and they take it back to their columns or their TV or radio shows, and spin what they've observed into a story. Judging from their writings (especially local scribes Dan Barreiro, Patrick Reusse and Bob Sansevere), there's some beef going on between these people. In our mind, great sportswriters are like samuraithey shouldn't take their work personally, should only, in the words of Red Barber, "report". This doesn't mean you can't write beautifully, or without colormany, such as Drew Sharp in the Detroit Free Press, even speak cynically without personal attacks. These are lessons our local crew could stand to learn, men who have been known to describe players and coaches as 'losers', 'cockroaches' and 'scum'. Is this bitterness the result of people who wish that they, too, had been great athletes, able to bask in glory? We don't know. But it seems as if Defordand many others who have taken to vilifying Kirby Puckettdon't want to teach simple lessons, they want to destroy a man who betrayed them, and want to feel better about themselves in the process. When journalists come close to the glow of a great ballplayer, and then swallow whole the stories he feeds them, only to discover he was a horrible character, there must be a painful sense of betrayal. Not as much as Tonya Puckett feels, but probably a good deal more than your average sports fan. Baseball fans might feel duped, and hurt, but we don't feel, in the words of Jeff Dubay at KFAN "stupid". He might feel stupidafter all, he was closer to the man than any of his listeners.
This isn't about whether or not Kirby Puckett deserves vilification. Kirby Puckett's story strikes us as sad, mostly for his children (all but unmentioned in the Deford story) and the women he affected. But stone-throwing isn't necessary. Frank Deford writes that '[a]thletes are romantic idols, worshiped by innocent children and stunted adults". Maybe, but few are the truly innocent children, and none seem more stunted than your average sportswriter. No doubt there are Twins fans out there who feel terribly hurt by this whole affair. But the "stunted adults" are more the likes of Bob Costas (who, oddly enough, gave his daughter the middle name 'Kirby'), Jeff Dubay and his feelings of stupidity, and even the author himself, who writes with the venom of a stilted lover. "The fans were taken," Deford states in a dull follow-up interview in SI online. "They gave their hearts away and it turned out that the man to whom they gave their hearts was not quite so deserving." In the 'final analysis'as Deford constantly repeatsit seems as if the hearts most broken, and the men most taken, were press who covered Kirby Puckett.
As usual, the pundits have given us the smorgasbord of rote predictions for the coming year, with the shocking revelation that the Twins, Yankees, Angels and A's are going to repeat in the American League. Maybe, just maybe, the White Sox, will win all 162 games with the incredible addition of Bartolo Colon. Last year we predicted, as we always do, that Tampa Bay will squeak into the playoffs, if only because we're really hoping that they'll either shock us by doing well, or be as wonderfully lousy as the Mets of old. But they won't. No one ever is.
That having been said, perhaps it's time to dispatch the predictions, and switch instead to Mudville's wish list: those things we hope will happen during the season that will make the whole baseball experience live up to the rhetoric that surrounds it.
Item, the first: we wish that Barry Bonds would hit .400. His homerun pursuit is exciting to a degree, but if he hit .400 it would knock him clear into the stratosphere of great baseball players. Home runs are not what they used to be, but the .400 barrier is the last of the great challenges. If you believe the Harvard educated scientists, no one will ever break Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, and besides, Barry would probably be the worst player to do it. Why? Well, according to today's rules, if, in one of the games, Bonds were to draw a walk every single at-bat, that particular game wouldn't count (it would have in DiMaggio's day, thus ending the streak). Considering the number of walks he receives, intentional and otherwise, you'd have this stop-start-stop-start streak, which would be excruciating. But if there's anyone out there who could top Ted Williams (and with a similar personality besides), it would be Barry Bonds.
Second, we wish that the Twins make it into the World Series. Because we live in Minnesota.
Of the third, the hope for dueling pennant races in Chicago. Forget New York: if the Cubs and the White Sox vie for the flag, that would be just too much. True, the White Sox probably wouldn't sell out a single home game (save the interleague match), but imagine the thrill of that postseason, not to mention an El Train Series.
Quatro, we want everyone, in every baseball stadium from Montreal to Arlington to Tokyo, to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" correctly. By that we mean inserting your home team's name in the spot where it says "HOME TEAM". E.g., "and we'll root, root, root for the TWINS, if they don't win it's a shame."
Five, we would also greatly appreciate it if Lee Greenwood's silly "God Bless the USA" would be left out of seventh inning stretch festivities. Sing "God Bless America", sing "This Land is My Land", sing anything but that crappy song.
Sixthly, we wish that the Minnesota Twins (and their fans) would act as if this were the Depression. That is, to make due with what they have, and be grateful for it. You're going to be in the Metrodome for, oh, at least six years (a conservative estimate), so why not make it as enjoyable as you can? Kudos to the Twins for their witty advertising campaigns in the past, and yet we're surprised that more hasn't been made of the Metrodome's 70s retro-style. We'd have the words "METRODOME" written in Krofft Supershow font, and maybe even have men in space suits vacuuming the turf (as they did in the Astrodome of old). We'd have, as we said before, tons of references to the woeful Senators, and line the hallways with plaques of every player who had a great season in Minnesota, from Zoilo Versalles to Ted Williams and Ray Dandrdge. And the fans need to stop complaining about the place all the time. After all, there are hungry fans in Portland that don't even have major league baseball
Number seven, we would insist that the concession stand never sells soy dogs. Supposedly, someone out there is trying very hard to get these 'dogs' on the menu. To add fuel to the fire of those who imagine us as dreadlock-wearing hippies conked out on pot, your Mudville editors are vegetarians. Nonetheless, we know that soy dogs are evil. Just because we don't eat of the flesh now doesn't mean we don't remember what it tasted like, and it certainly didn't have the texture of rolled up flip-flops. If veggies want food, bring it in (cheaper, better) or provide us with subs or something.
Finally, we ask for baseball, pure and simple. As Brad Zellar of the City Pages once wrote, "that old hogwash is truer now more than ever", referring, of course, to all the sentiment written about baseball. No one needs to be reminded how troubling these times are, worse, perhaps, than any in recent memory. Is it too much to ask that the powers of baseballand that includes the owners, the players, and the mediasimply go about their business, and stop attacking one another?
NUMBER NINE, NUMBER NINE, NUMBER NINE
When it comes to baseball artthat is, paintingswe have a tendency to shudder. Most of this stuff seems in the class of "Thomas Kinkade, painter of lite", that is, excessively, almost creepily, sentimental. So it was with great surprise that we were alerted to (by the enterprising artist himself) Grant Smith. Smith's "9 Paintings" are some of the finest we've seen: weird, edgy stuff, including portraits of Ty Cobb and Rube Foster (among others), of a time period when baseball was especially brutal. Since we're no Robert Hughes, we can't do justice to these paintings with our prose, except to say, check them out yourself.