Monday, January 14, 2013

Remembering Kirby, the Hero and the Monster

31 years ago this very day, the Minnesota Twins used the third overall pick in the January draft to take some chubby kid out of Chicago named Kirby Puckett.

As anyone who lives near the state of Minnesota or ever watches baseball already knows, Kirby became the face of a Twins franchise that would win its first (and so far only) two World Series championships in a 5 year span.

Puckett was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, one of the greats of all time, and someone who played the game with such a childlike enthusiasm that you couldn't help but love him. Of course, it was only much later that we would learn he was also a repeated wife abuser who made his former wife fear for her life on numerous occasions, as well as someone who would go on to face repeated charges of sexual harassment before his untimely death.

Those are two undisputed facts about Kirby that are pretty hard to reconcile. For someone like me who grew up idolizing him, it's hard to imagine him as anything other than the round, lovable, enthusiastic ball player he came across as. But as a feminist repulsed by domestic violence and sexual assault, it's hard not to view him as a unrepentant monster who used his fame to shield his many crimes.

It's a contradiction I feel we're facing more these days, as an exponentially-expanding media presence and social media growth bring far more to light than was the case not so long ago. Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, widely regarded as heroes and exemplars of the virtue of sport, if they played today would likely be regarded as an alcoholic malcontent and racist hot head, respectively. But it still leaves the question -- how do you judge someone's professional career against the horrible things they did in their personal lives?

I don't know that it's a question with an easy answer, but the peace I've made with it is to never separate the two. Kirby repeatedly beating his wife doesn't mean he wasn't a great ballplayer and incredibly fun to watch, just as his great ball playing doesn't mean he wasn't also an abusive husband.

It reminds me greatly of how the current crop of Hall of Fame voters are struggling to deal with the steroids era. The best solution I've seen for guys like Bonds and Clemens, who in addition to being obvious cheaters were also clearly some of the best to ever play the game, is to let them into the HOF, but note their obvious and/or admitted steroid use as part of the story of their career.

So I guess that's more-or-less how I'll try to remember and talk about Puck; he was the greatest Twin of all time, and a guy who regularly beat his wife. One of those makes him a hero, the other makes him a monster...

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