Puckett always on minds of Twins
Organization remembers Hall of Famer on anniversary of death
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The No. 34 is no longer stitched on the sleeve of the Twins' jerseys. And this season will not be officially dedicated to the memory of the former Twins great who donned that number.But that doesn't mean that Kirby Puckett's legacy in Minnesota will soon be forgotten. It was just a year ago Tuesday that Puckett passed away at the age of 45 after suffering a massive stroke. At that time, the entire Twins organization was encompassed in sadness upon learning the news of Puckett's death. But while a year has passed, the memories of the outfielder still appear as fresh as ever. After the club observed a moment of silence before its game against the Dodgers in honor of Puckett on Tuesday, it was manager Ron Gardenhire who had to compose himself as he talked about one of the most beloved Twins player's too-soon departure. "Those are touching things to me still to this day," Gardenhire said of the tribute while growing a little quiet talking about it. "He was a very good friend of mine. And in this organization, we don't forget about Puck and we never will. Last year was a great tribute to him, but it will never stop." Keeping Puckett's legacy alive is something that Gardenhire strives to do almost daily. From the pictures he keeps on the walls of his offices both in Minnesota and Fort Myers to the stories he shares with players that express Puckett's happy-go-lucky way of playing the game, Gardenhire tries to instill in his club the lessons that Puckett taught him. And Gardenhire hasn't been alone in his effort. At least one player in the Twins clubhouse has been equally as vocal about keeping Puckett on the minds of those in the organization -- Torii Hunter. For Hunter, the real difficulty over the past year has come in having to go on every day without his mentor. It was 13 years ago that Hunter spent his first spring in big-league camp with the Twins and had the chance to interact with Puckett for the first time. It was a friendship that formed almost immediately and one that would last until Puckett's untimely death. The two shared so many things that when the Twins completed their improbable turnaround, it was Puckett that first came to Hunter's mind. "I'm always thinking about him," Hunter said. "I could be driving down the street or walking in a grocery store and just think about Kirby -- his laugh, his smile, things that he's done with me. A situation comes up that we actually talked about it, and I think about what he said to do and I do it. He's always in my mind."
One way that Hunter has kept Puckett with him has been by displaying Puckett's jersey above his locker in the Metrodome. Hunter said that it will be there as long as he remains in the organization, and the hope for him is that it will stay there long after he's gone.And while Puckett's impact on the team has dwindled due to the fact that few players remain from his time in the organization, the efforts of Gardenhire and Hunter have helped current Twins, such as shortstop Jason Bartlett, understand just what Puckett meant to the club. "I didn't know him, but as much as everybody talks about him, I feel like I do," Bartlett said. "He played the game right and they always say that's how Kirby taught us, and I wish I could have met the guy because everything that's been said about the guy is pretty spectacular." The reminders of Puckett's presence have become less and less in the clubhouse, but if you look hard enough, they're there. Sitting on one of the ledges in the home clubhouse at Hammond Stadium is a small wooden "KP" with words inscribed detailing memories of Puckett. It's those small touches as well as the stories that will keep Puckett from ever becoming a distant memory to anyone associated with the Minnesota Twins. "Still to this day, we use him constantly," Gardenhire said. "And that's the great thing about Puck -- he'll never really go away because he's a part of us."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.