For 12 years Casey's signature introduction of Kirby Puckett was music to the ears of Twins fans at the Metrodome. Hearing that introduction in Cooperstown, the hallowed ground where only the game's greatest are honored, was a thrill to those who made the journey.
Even before Puckett's enshrinement, Minnesota basked in the glory of the day's first inductee, Dave Winfield, who was born and raised in St. Paul and was a star athlete at the University of Minnesota. With a national audience listening, Winfield reminisced about childhood trips to Oxford playground to play ball.
"I remember my brother Steve and myself walking down Carroll Avenue with that first baseball uniform on. Looking good. Walking with those cleats and everything, becoming part of a team. It wasn't that long ago and those are experiences that I'll never forget," Winfield said in a 23-minute speech.
The Twins are on a list of six teams Winfield played for during a twenty-two year major league career. Between all those teams and seasons, he rolled up lots of people to thank and his speech was the longest of the induction day.
Winfield also had friends and admirers supporting him from the various parts of the country where he's played. Puckett, on the other hand, personifies Minnesota to many baseball fans. He played his entire 12-year career with the Twins and may be the most popular player in team history.
But Puckett grew up in a public housing project on the south side of Chicago. In his Hall of Fame speech, he, like Winfield, fondly recalled the support and direction provided by a mother who didn't live to see her son in Cooperstown. "And Momma's probably looking down right now and thinking about all those spankings she gave me for hitting balls through neighbors' windows and breaking lamps and everything else in the house. I want to tell Mom, 'Well, Mom, I hope you can see now that it was worth it. Your little baby is going into the Hall of Fame,'" Puckett said.
Puckett arranged a trip to Cooperstown for a dozen young baseball players who now live in the project where he was raised. Ziff Sistrunk, who coaches the team at Chicago's Robert Taylor homes, says Puckett's enshrinement has electrified the project. "He's the example for all of Illinois, for all of Chicago to give inspiration. When you're talking about people getting shot and drugs around you every day, when you get an inspirational story like Kirby Puckett, all over Robert Taylor Homes you're seeing people hanging number 34 out, you're seeing people hanging banners out, the kids put together some pictures for him, schools put up marquees: 'Kirby Puckett.' It's tremendous and what we want to do is we want this inspiration, this hope to continue," Sistrunk said.
While Puckett's rise to success has inspired many Chicagoans, lots of Minnesotans are grateful for the way he handled his success. Ron Cavanaugh of Bloomington took a young friend to Cooperstown as a high school graduation gift. Cavanaugh says he values what Kirby stands for. "He stands for cleanliness. He stands for politeness, he stands for being your best, doing the best. He's talked a number of times about kids staying out of trouble, so he's just a good role model for kids and adults," Cavanaugh said.
Similar themes were echoed by several of the Minnesotans in Cooperstown, such as Yvonne Johnson and Margaret Jacobsen of New Brighton. "I just think he's been one of the greatest sports figures we've had. And a nice guy and a wonderful family. We don't get many heroes like that nowadays. And so we really wanted to honor him," Yvonne Johnson said.
"I'm a teacher," said Margaret, "and I just think he's been a role model for all of our kids, I really do. And I used to read my students the book Kirby Puckett, the Best You Can Be. So we just felt we had to be there today."
Puckett and Winfield were inducted into the Hall of Fame along with the late Hilton Smith, a star pitcher in the Negro Leagues during the 1930s and '40s; and Bill Mazeroski, who starred at second base for the Pittsburgh Pirates for 17 years. While Winfield and Puckett delivered their speeches gracefully, Mazeroski was so overcome with emotion, he was unable to read the speech he had written.
The only tears Kirby Puckett shed came while Mazeroski struggled to compose himself. Puckett found it a poignant reminder of what a great honor it is to be inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame.