When I was 10, I found out my dad and Kirby Puckett shared the same barber.
This was odd for a couple of reasons: 1) He was making $3 million a year in 1992, one of the highest salaries in professional sports of that time. And 2) the barbershop was in one of the roughest neighborhoods in North Minneapolis.
It sometimes surprised me that even my dad wanted to go there, as we lived in the suburbs—but, then again, try finding a barber that can cut black hair in the suburbs of St. Paul.
This was nearly two years after the Twins won the World Series, when Kirby won the heart of every baseball fan in America outside of Atlanta. I did my shy walk towards him as he was talking about the possibility of a new contract (which he would get) and asked him to sign a piece of paper that my dad had given me.
"You doing well in school?," he asked.
"Yes, sir," I muttered, too afraid to even look at him directly in the eye out of fear that I would melt in his presence, like Raiders of the Lost Ark.
He laughed and signed my little scrap of paper. I shuffled off and tried not to stare at him as he was cracking jokes and shooting the breeze with the barbershop.
A decade later, reading Frank DeFord's scathing examination into the life of Puckett made me wince. Not because I had held Kirby Puckett in such high esteem, but that I, like many fans, had looked past his numerous transgressions in favor of remembering Game Six of the World Series, the acrobatic catches which defied his body size and the laws of physics and that free-swinging style which powered the Twins' lineup for over a decade.
Now I could have said DeFord wanted to stir up some drama to sell copies of SI. But he isn't some hack trying to make a name for himself, nor is he one to embellish the facts for the sake of moral clarity.
His piece was not only an indictment of Puckett, but a judgement on Minnesota and its fans for overlooking Puckett's problems for the sake of deification. After reading, I couldn't help but acknowledge my own duplicity, not in the crimes, but the culture which allowed such crimes to persist.
I thought about this when I listened, watched and read numerous scribes, fans and players discuss Alex Rodriguez's admission of taking performance enhancing drugs from 2001-3. This isn't a defense or prosecution of the player.
If A-Rod gets nothing more than a smattering of boos or if he loses his MVP award from 2003, has the 156 HR he accumulated stricken from his career statistics and is banned from Major League Baseball and Cooperstown, I could say either punishment is appropriate.
What bothered me, though, was the following sanctimonious questions that writers, fans and former players had, “Is nothing sacred? What do we tell the kids?”
Here’s a suggestion: People make mistakes. That’s what makes them people.
Hall-of-Fame personality Dick Vitale said A-Rod and MLB let him and his large checkbook down. And while Vitale’s suggestions for consequences are legitimate and good-hearted, one has to ask, “What do you mean he broke your heart?” Dick Vitale is one of the largest spokespeople for the V Foundation in honor of his close friend, Jim Valvano.
Is Valvano’s legendary bravery when fighting cancer any cheaper because none of his players graduated from NC State or he was forced to resign because of recruiting violations? I would imagine Vitale and others would say, of course not. And they would be right. Jim Valvano was a human being who made mistakes.
Baseball, like all sports, has a long history of sugary memories which cover bitter truths. Baseball was supposed to die after the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, but was saved by Babe Ruth.
That would be the same Ruth who got drunk sometimes at the games(during Prohibition) and cheated on his wife so many times, he caught an assortment of venereal diseases.
The supposed golden era of baseball from the '40s to the '60s had amphetamines in every locker room. Granted, they weren’t illegal, but neither was “The Clear” when BALCO supposedly distributed it to Bonds, Sheffield and Giambi.
And what about the fans’? Despite knowing that steroids has tainted the game since the late 90’s, attendance has risen to record levels in that time.
Do we honestly care about steroids? Or do we say we do to make ourselves feel holier than players out of a jealousy over their paychecks and lifestyle and not because we truly care for the purity of the sport? Whenever someone wants to point out a character flaw of an athlete, their salary inevitably comes up.
Isn’t THAT a poor example for our children, that the responsibilities of your position are dependent upon your salary? If you make $10 million, you shouldn’t cheat, run a red light, do or say anything that I don’t agree with.
Whether you make $7.15 million or $7.15 an hour, your value as a human being ideally neither rises nor falls. And you are easily as prone to character flaws and errors in judgment no matter your salary or lot in life.
The assumption of being a perfect person based on economic status or ability is not only illogical, but more a far more damaging lesson for children than steroids or complaining about a contract or throwing a temper tantrum on the field of play.
People want to look at Rodriguez and speak with frustration that they have to let their kids in on the secret that people, even great athletes are flawed. But shouldn’t this period be the best teachable moment for children? That sports, like entertainment, work, religion and family are human endeavors.
And human endeavors are naturally mistake-laden because human beings make mistakes (lots of them). But that shouldn’t it shouldn’t prevent life from moving forward and pursuing improvement of yourself and those around you.
Steroids don’t do that—if anything, those years of Rodriguez were futile because his stats did nothing for the Rangers or his legacy.
Only hard work and a positive mental attitude can help one succeed.
Looking back, I’m still glad that Kirby Puckett played so well during the World Series, and that I got his autograph two years later. Because that memory is connected to being with my father, who taught me more things about striving towards being a good person and professional on a $30K salary than Kirby Puckett, Michael Jordan or Brett Favre ever did.
And when I think about Kirby, I think about how NOT to act. And when I think about my father (who has his flaws, albeit, less severe than Puckett’s), I think about how to act. And both lessons are valuable to children. It’s never just about the wins, but the losses as well.