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Tuesday, March 7, 2006
Mourning for Puckett continues in Minnesota, around baseball

Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS - In the middle of a steadily growing memorial to Kirby Puckett, outside the Metrodome and right alongside a street named for the beloved Hall of Famer, one cardboard sign stood out.

"There IS crying in baseball," the message was written, in red ink, bannered over a couple of old Puckett baseball cards taped to the corners.

All around the game, people who were close to the roly-poly outfielder who led the Minnesota Twins to two World Series titles - and even those who only watched him on TV - were saddened Tuesday by Puckett's death.

"This morning, when I got up and took a shower and watched the news, tears started coming out," said Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, one of many contemporaries who spoke memorably about the man whose energy, enthusiasm and exceptional skills captivated baseball fans - both diehard and casual - throughout a 12-year career that was cut short by glaucoma in 1996.

Puckett died at 45 in a Phoenix hospital Monday afternoon, a day after having a stroke in his home.

"This is a great loss for baseball," said former Baltimore Orioles great Cal Ripken, who with Puckett was one of the few stars of their generation who never switched teams.

"Puck was one of my favorite people to compete against on the field and to be around off the field. I will always remember how Kirby played the game with joy and how he brought a smile to your face just by saying hello," Ripken said.

A public memorial service is planned for 7 p.m. Sunday at the Metrodome, the Twins announced. The gates will open at 6 p.m., and there will be no charge with seating by general admission.

A private visitation and memorial service is slated for Sunday afternoon in the Twin Cities. The Twins were planning to attend Puckett's funeral.

"We'll take our time and go there, pay our respects, and then come on back down to spring training," general manager Terry Ryan said, before Minnesota played the New York Yankees in Tampa, Fla.

The Twin Cities' other pro teams also took time to honor Puckett on Tuesday night. The NBA's Timberwolves and NHL's Wild had moments of silence before their games. Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett had K.P. 34 (Puckett's jersey number) written on his shoes.

March is for games that don't matter, mere tuneups for the regular season, but Puckett's teammates and opponents always remarked on how he never loafed - even in meaningless exhibitions.

"He was a tremendous ambassador for the team. I think Dave Winfield said the right thing: He was the only player in the history of baseball everybody loved," said Guillen, who used to kiddingly call his son, Oney, "Little Puck" because he was a bit chubby.

Perhaps the most poignant marker of Puckett's impact on people was outside the Metrodome, thousands of miles from those sunny spring training sites, where dozens of fans shuffled around during the noon hour on a dreary, chilly day.

There were bouquets. There were orange Wheaties boxes, commemorating the Twins' championships. There were bobblehead dolls. There were caps. And plenty of personalized messages.

"I've been watching Kirby since I was young," said 25-year-old Tim Jarvis, who brought a flower pot to set on the sidewalk. "He's the kind of guy when your dad says, 'You want to learn how to hit a baseball, that's the guy to watch."

An Ohio native who came to St. Paul to attend school, Jarvis recalled Puckett as one of the reasons why he was excited to move. Even though his playing days were long gone.

"That's awesome. I get to go watch baseball in the house that Kirby played in," Jarvis said.

When famous people die, it seems everyone has a story to tell of a personal encounter. With Puckett, it seems everyone is actually telling the truth.

The Yankees' Randy Johnson recalled how Puckett helped his mother put her luggage in the overhead compartment once on a plane. Don Mattingly pointed out that Puckett was the one who gave him his nickname, "Donnie Baseball." Former Twin and current Red Sox player David Ortiz wrote "Puckett 34 R.I.P" on his cap for the Dominican Republic's game against Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic.

Steve Finley, now with the San Francisco Giants, remembered when Puckett told Ripken hello while the Orioles stretched before a 1989 game at the Dome - and then started chatting with Finley, a rookie he had never before met.

"He had a way of making everyone feel important," Finley said.

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AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum from Tampa, Fla., AP Sports Writer Howard Ulman from Fort Myers, Fla., AP Sports Writer Andrew Seligman from Tucson, Ariz., and AP Sports Writer David Ginsburg from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., contributed to this report.