To the fans of '87 and '91:
Every little boy remembers his first important hit in baseball. I was between sixth and seventh grade, and the go-ahead run was between second and third base. We played, as all boys did then, in public-rec parks every night and all day Saturday. Teams were chosen based on who was crafty enough to grab “knobs” (ask any boy over 40 to explain). There were no umpires; we all learned and practiced a rough form of reciprocal justice.
On that summer day, the rec terror who lived down by the airport threw a fastball. My bat hit the ball in the sweet spot (I can still feel it) and I actually pulled the pitch down the first-base line. The run scored. Every boy knows that feeling, and that little boy inside of every man has a name. His name is Kirby.
Many have written about the loss of our baseball legend. For me, the loss is of the little boy in all of us. There is a wide-faced joy that boys have when they’re playing baseball. Some say this is because baseball is pastoral, played in a park. But for me, it is the joyous spirit of being a little boy. Legends live forever; not so little boys.
Puck. In the state of hockey, our transcendent sports hero was a baseball kid called Puck. The irony is Shakespearean, and the Bard himself gave voice to Puck. That Puck, the Puck of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was a “merry wanderer of the night.” The boys of summer often play at night, and the description aptly applies to number 34. Where else but in the dreamy world of little boys would a “mud cat” sing a song about Puck?
It was not until 1987 that a Minnesota team won the World Series. The Lakers had won national championships in the 1950s, but no one thought that was the same thing. In 1987, the little boy of our dreams led the American League in hits and led the World Series with a .357 average. (Baseball is our most math-centric sport, but note that it requires only sixth- and seventh-grade math.) The Baseball Chronicle referred to our joy as “the diminutive center fielder.” This was Puck’s first World Series and the first ever played indoors. The day after the parade celebrating the win, Minnesota had its first snowstorm of the season. The day after the memorial service for our Puck, we had the last snowstorm of the season. Puck reminded us when he retired that “tomorrow is not promised.”
Little boys mostly grow up, and my wife carried our first child to the sixth game of the 1991 World Series in her belly. The entire state of Minnesota levitated as the famous home run headed for the fence in the bottom of the 11th inning. I’ve always wondered how many premature births there were after that night, because we experienced early contractions. Had that child been a boy, his name would’ve been Kirby. (If Walter Mitty returns after his long retirement and requires you to prove that you’re a real Minnesotan for some undercover spy operation, here’s how you do it: Tell him who caught that famous home run. It sure wasn’t an Atlanta ballplayer. It was fan Joe Reis, who in true Minnesota fashion gave the ball back to Kirby. Such is the magic woven by little boys.)
All boys have hit a baseball. All boys, if they’re lucky, have played catch with their dads. And I know, just know, that every summer, Puck and the boys are playing baseball in a cornfield in Iowa. Bob Casey announces the games.
Vance K. Opperman