When I was ten years old I met a man named Kirby Puckett. An amazing athlete, he was doing the splits on the stairs which led down to the Metrodome field, where I was throwing out the first pitch. He must have seen my jaw drop, because as I passed he stuck out his hand and passed on a simple, joyful, knowing hello. "Hey kid."
To a ten-year-old kid, baseball players are celebrities and the stars are heroes. But in the upper-Midwest, Kirby was more than a hero. He was a living legend.
In 1991, we all learned what a living legend can do. In game 6 of the Greatest World Series Ever, on the brink of elimination, Kirby Puckett famously told his teammates to climb on his back, because that night, he would carry them.
Before that night he had been a tremendous - if unconventional - ballplayer. He put up amazing numbers, and he earned himself a spot in the Hall of Fame. And on that particular night, Kirby Puckett confirmed what every ten-year-old kid already knew: The man was special.
His heroics - both on the field and off - earned him well deserved accolades. He was both a 10-time All-Star and the Roberto Clemente Man of the Year. But it wasn't the heroics alone that made Kirby special.
When I was ten years old, I knew that what made a great baseball player was the same thing that made a great person: heart. For those that knew him, and for those that watched him, it was his heart that made Kirby a living legend.
"I did what you're supposed to do in life, and that's what I tell my kids every day: Pick one or two things in your life, and put your heart into it. I gave my all to the game of baseball."
If another player had said it, the words would sound hollow. Coming from Kirby Puckett, they're an understatement. The man was a force of energy and excitement. He played baseball because he loved baseball. He was always keenly aware of how blessed he was to play for a living, and Puckett played every game like it could be his last. That passion was truly unique.
There are few ballplayers who can top Puckett with their on-the-field performances. There are fewer still who were able to inspire like he did. But there are none who played the game like Kirby.
When I was ten years old, my hero was a man named Kirby Puckett. He was my hero not because I wanted to play baseball as well as he did, but because he wanted to play baseball as much as I did. Kirby Puckett played baseball with the joy, the enthusiasm, the love, of a ten-year-old boy.
Kirby once said, "I've always tried to play the game the right way." Kirby did not just play the game the right way, he set a whole new standard. The way he played baseball made him more than a man, it made him a living legend.
When I was ten years old I said hello to a man named Kirby Puckett. Today, when I am twenty-four years old, I say goodbye to a legend.