Pitchers and catchers reported this week to spring training in Florida and Arizona. I'm not sure if this means anything to a lot of you. It means a lot to us whose psyches are fed by the idea of being outside, throwing, running, hitting and witnessing the magnificent art of baseball.
Knowing baseballs are flying from the hands of hundreds of young people who are working on their throwing mechanics and cultivating joy for the game means a lot to stem the doldrums of long, hard winters. Hot stove fantasies carry visions of sun-filled summers of our youth. We live the joy of seeing young bodies carry that everlasting youth on the field of immortality.
We don't keep the youth alive by fooling ourselves into thinking we could take the place of the kids. We keep it alive when we remember and emulate the joy that we see in a child's eye, in their enthusiastic dash across the diamond or between the bases. Kids are our role models.
Even as adults, as we did as kids, we are emulating our heroes on and off the diamond. We mimic what we see on the field and the trappings of their status off the field. We do this for better—and sometimes for worse, and sometimes we just have to ignore the worse to keep ourselves from advocating bad behavior, to keep ourselves from the disillusionment of being grown up and facing the real world of mortal beings and gods of clay feet.
One of the gods was Kirby Puckett: Mortal, flawed god who brought more joy to kids and adults than today's reputation of professional sports can support. It was not fair to Kirby that we made him into a god. The day I met him, he was human enough, maybe just in God's image.
I worked at the famed Hungry Mind Bookstore for most of the 1990s. David Unowsky, the store owner, had a healthy appreciation for and relationship with baseball and baseball players. This was seed enough to urge the publisher of Kirby's autobiography to send Kirby to the bookstore for a book signing one spring afternoon a few days into the season. I remember two things about his visit.
The first is that when Kirby arrived, he did not strike me as the god that he had been made into. The man I saw stepping out of the car in the ally behind the store struck me with the kind of familiarity that one has when seeing one of the baseball stars who is a two or three years ahead of you in your high school. And in those moments, he was superhuman nice, as was his reputation.
The second memorable thing about the signing was the people who came. It was during a school day. Not many kids. I stood next to Kirby, opening each book to the page which he was to sign, a common convention of convenience to speed the process we use when there is such a big crowd for any famous author. Most of the participants were men, a few moms and other women getting an autograph for their husband or their kids. There were the collectors, showing up with a box of books, hoping that the signed copy will bring a nice price some day in the future (especially if Kirby were to die a heroic death, either on the field on a Roberto Clemente-type demise, which, of course, was far from the true track of history).
Also in line to meet Kirby were a small boy and his mom. When it came time for the boy to meet Kirby, he stood back, not moving forward into the large open space before the table where Kirby sat. The boy was slightly frightened, anxiously peeking from behind his copy of I Love This Game: My Life in Baseball. (See http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/531748.I_Love_This_Game.) The boy's mother bent down and whispered to him. She gently nudged him forward with her hand. He studder-step resisted and then he slowly, tentatively made his way to the table.
The boy was small for his age. He wore glasses that made it clear that he was never going to see well enough to hit a curve ball, and maybe not even a fastball. He was never going to emulate this god-like image in a fashion that even resembled his peers' level of accomplishment. But, like many of us, he was there to emulate and celebrate in spirit.
When the boy arrived at the front of the table, he received a most cheerful greeting from Kirby. The boy stood slack-jawed, still protecting himself from the glare of stardom with his book. “Hey, man, want me to sign your book?” Kirby asked. I think the boy managed a slow nod. I gently took the book from the boy's hands, which I placed squarely on the signing table, the boy's mouth still agape, eyes wide open, breathless.
Kirby signed the book. The boy, hands still planted on the table, found the strength to utter the words, “Are you really Kirby Puckett?”
“Yeah, man,” smiled Kirby with his trademark grin. “I'm really Kirby Puckett.”
“Really?” the boy asked again.
“Yeah, it's me. I'm Kirby Puckett.”
The boy turned to his mom who was standing back with the other patrons waiting for signed books. With eyes bigger than the glasses on his face, he looked to her and said, “It's really Kirby Puckett!” He turned back to Kirby and said, “You're really Kirby Puckett!” Kirby held out his hand, I think going as far to pry the boy's hand off the table to shake it. With a slow, stunned hand shake, he was meeting the real Kirby Puckett.
There are many reasons I love this moment. One, for this boy, Santa Claus, at that point, became totally unnecessary. He met the Real Kirby Puckett.
Another reason is that by meeting this young man, I gained another role model. He reminded me of why baseball is important. I remembered for whom baseball is most important. That boy was my role model, our role model because he showed us—reminded us that there are good, healthy and important places from which to access and practice joy.
I have to say that most of us adults at the event were making a small attempt to access that joy, the joy that belongs with baseball, with the kid inside us and with the hope that comes with every spring. This is the hot stove time of year when we really start to look forward to tasting that cup of joy, the trigger that can often turn our winter depression into one of those things that gives us new life.
Baseball is, at its heart, a kids' game. When the Twins played at the Dome, it seemed that most of the people who filled the stands where there for one or more of baseball's joys. As much as baseball purists scoffed at baseball indoors, most still showed up to experience one of their childhood loves.
Now there is a new stadium—or I should say ball park. Seats are more expensive, more than a kid can afford. Tickets are hard to get. Looking at the patrons who make their way through the gates, they are just as likely to be guys taking a date who they intended to impress by sending at least three times the steep ticket price. Like at any park, old or new, Metrodome or Target Field (and why it is not called Hennepin County Stadium is beyond me, since that is where/who the money for it came from) the hot dates and business clients are still the ones with the best seats, close up like the side lines at a Los Angeles Lakers game—next to Jack Nicholson or some other movie star. Maybe one day, those seats will be filled with boys and girls aged eight to 15 and the tycoons can sit in the nose bleed section of the field with their corporate claim: “No bad seats in the house.”
But who am I to talk—on several counts. For one thing, I had a front-row seat to see a boy make the best use that anyone could ever make from meeting one of the most memorable baseball players in recent history. Over the years, Kirby Puckett's image has acquired its share of tarnish, a failure of godliness that wakes us up to who we really are after we have devoted ourselves to media's graven idols. Still, the reality that I cannot take away for the world of realities is the one that I saw that day, in the eyes of the boy and in the person of Kirby Puckett: that is Kirby's ability to bring that kind of joy, excitement and positive energy to a game that has enough foibles to make us jaded; to a society filled with mortals and mortal limitations; and to anyone who needs to remember to pursue our life's joys and all the seemingly compromised sources that help us make that joy.
In places all over the country, all over the Americas, not just in Florida and Arizona, but in other warm places, in gyms and field houses, and on scraggly, weedy fields, you can hear the sound of balls popping in leather mitts and the chatter that propels the happiness of play, games and life. Boys and girls asking for autographs, even from guys who will spend the next six years in the minor leagues or who will never make it further than the college squad.
Baseball is important for a lot of reasons. I could go on about its place in society, how it is a profound expression of American culture and the deep social and economic justice struggles of our country, the style and attitudes of the people, and as an impeccable marker of history. I could talk about all the great personal stories of triumph and tragedy that express themselves like in no other sport. But today, baseball is important for this fact: For the coming spring, we have the chance to find at least a little corner of happy on more days than not—because of a terribly far-sighted boy and because Kirby Puckett was really Kirby Puckett.