Kirby Puckett 1960-2006
I've argued elsewhere that Kirby Puckett was the most fearsome hitter to dig in against the Mariners in my lifetime. Yes, Barry Bonds, or Alex Rodriguez, and even Mark Texeira were *better* hitters, but Puckett was the guy who filled you with dread. And it's not just because of that sickening line-drive off the cheek of the M's Steve Shields (a game I attended as a kid... i'm still amazed that Shields survived, and yet I still feel like pointing out that the M's won it in the ninth).
This is tough to fully explain to people who weren't around for Puckett's reign of terror; it was because, not in spite of, the fact that he wouldn't walk. There are a hundred sabermetric reasons why he wasn't the 'best' player of the 1980s, but man, there's no one I hated seeing more than Kirby. He hit .414/.469/.759 in seattle in 1986, and then followed that up with a .500/.520/1.042 (no, that's not an OPS - that's a SLG percentage; seriously) line against the M's in 1987. See what I mean? It's not enough that he beat you - he actually made you root for him while doing it. I didn't think that was possible to replicate, until Pedro Martinez came along. There are players whose performance transcends rooting interest - and while that's a pretty damned high bar to get over, Kirby was one of the few to do so.
For all those that complain that his OBP wasn't what it should be, I submit that you're missing the point entirely. Not only did he have the demonstrated ability to take out a promising young M's pitcher, but he also had the ability to change a game, no matter what the score. Not only was he a lifetime .830+ OPS hitter - he was getting better just before his eye injury: he was a 900 OPS hitter for his last two years. There's a reason so many people went nuts for Edgar Martinez: there wasn't a better *right handed hitter* in the game except Puckett. No righty had won a batting title since Carney Lansford, who, if you're wondering, never provoked anywhere near the same time of reaction. I expected Mike Morgan, Matt Young, Pete Ladd, Lee Guetterman to get Lansford out. I was pleasantly surprised when they got Puckett out.
He's justifiably famous for his 1991 world series exploits against the Braves: this is the sine qua non of a star player willing his team to victory. I have no idea how to measure what Puckett meant to that 1991 Twins squad, but I will say that he captivated this neutral observer, and millions more like him.
Rest in peace, Kirby.