Twins Scout Stumbled Upon Unknown Kirby Puckett

Ultimate Draft Book: Draft Spotlight 1982

Kirby Puckett (Photo by Robert Hanashiro)

Kirby Puckett (Photo by Robert Hanashiro)

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It was the summer of 1981. With the game ground to a halt by an unprecedented 54-day strike, Minnesota Twins assistant farm director Jim Rantz found himself with a little extra time on his hands. In his mind, it was the perfect opportunity to pack up his family and see a game, in this case a Central Illinois Collegiate League encounter involving his son Mike.

"I wasn't on assignment," Rantz recalled, "but I guess when you're at a ball game, you're always working."

Rantz was one of a couple of dozen fans in attendance, and it wasn't long before his attention shifted to a player on the visiting team. "Lo and behold, they had this guy playing for Quincy," Rantz said. "He went 3-for-4, hit a home run, threw someone out at the plate and stole a couple of bases. I didn't know it at the time but he was leading the league in hitting, too."

The player was Kirby Puckett, a virtually unknown rising sophomore at Bradley. "What impressed me the most was the way he carried himself on and off the field," Rantz said. "It was like 90 degrees or more and everyone else was dragging around. He was the first one on the field and the first one off. You could see he enjoyed playing, he was having fun."

Because big league teams were trying to save money during the strike, they had pulled scouts off the road, so Rantz was certain no one else knew about Puckett. He was 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds when he graduated from Chicago's Calumet High two years earlier, and as the youngest of nine siblings had taken a year off school to work, installing carpets in Thunderbirds at a Ford factory, to help support his family. Bradley coach Dewey Kalmer spotted him at a major league tryout and offered him a scholarship. He hit .378 with eight homers, but when his father died unexpectedly, Puckett chose to transfer as a sophomore to Triton Junior College in suburban Chicago to be closer to his family.

That made him eligible for the January 1982 draft, and on Rantz' recommendation—he was the only person in the organization to see Puckett play—the Twins selected Puckett with the third pick. The Twins offered him $6,000, so he decided to stay at Triton for the spring semester. He led the Trojans to the Junior College World Series by hitting .472 with 16 homers and 78 RBIs, along with 28 doubles, eight triples and 42 stolen bases. He was named the national juco player of the year—and he was no longer an unknown.

"Thank God we had the rights to him," Rantz said.

The Twins knew it would be harder than ever to sign him, and with the June draft approaching, they upped their offer to $20,000. Puckett accepted.

That was the beginning of a brilliant career with the Twins, along with a special relationship with an adoring fan base. He had already established his Hall of Fame credentials after 12 seasons, when on March 27, 1996, at age 35, his career suddenly ended when he awoke with blurred vision, later diagnosed as glaucoma. Doctors attempted various treatments, to no avail, and Puckett announced his retirement in a tear-filled ceremony four months later. Puckett died in 2006, a day after suffering a stroke. "If ever there was a player who was identified more with an organization, and who exemplified more what an organization was all about, I don't know who that would be," said Andy MacPhail, the Twins' general manager in their 1987 and '91 championship seasons

To this day, Rantz shakes his head over how the Twins lucked into Puckett. "Call it fate if you want, but otherwise I would not have seen him. The one knock on him was his size; everyone thought he was too small. Again, as Kirby went along, he got a little bigger, but no one knew how big his heart was."

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