Kirby Puckett’s legacy lives on in center field for Minnesota Twins

Kirby Puckett set a great example for Minnesota Twins center fielders who followed in his footsteps. (Jim Mone/AP)

There is a proud, and somewhat rare, tradition in Minnesota Twins baseball. It started with the late, great Kirby Puckett.

In 1994, Puckett began to mentor a young Torii Hunter, teaching him about much more than just patrolling center field at the Metrodome. When Hunter was a spring training invitee that March, he was assigned a locker next to Puckett’s. Instead of being brash or arrogant, instead of making Hunter carry his bags, Puckett instead took Hunter under his wing. Hunter learned from Puckett about life as a professional athlete, how to conduct yourself in front of the media, how to act in your community and how to enjoy the ride as a Twins baseball player.

To this day – more than six years after Puckett’s tragic and untimely death, and nearly 20 years after Hunter was a Twins apprentice – Hunter still frequently reminisces on his relationship with Puckett, and credits Puckett as one of the most important factors in his development as a player and a man. Professional sports are competitive, not just with respect to that day’s opponent, but often within the same organization. The fact that Puckett would single out a young Hunter – the player destined to someday usurp Puckett’s role as center fielder in Minnesota – was rare.

That Hunter himself carried on that tradition, mentoring a young Denard Span, is equally amazing. Span was drafted in 2002, and everyone knew that he would one day succeed Hunter in center field. Remembering the way that Puckett treated him, Hunter worked out with a young Span in the off-season, even having Span stay at Hunter’s winter home, and the pair quickly fell into a mentor-mentee relationship.  Though there were a few obstacles in the way of Span becoming Minnesota’s everyday center fielder, he eventually prevailed. And the link between Puckett and Minnesota’s center fielder – now two generations removed – was still present.

Span has carried the torch, as well, befriending and mentoring speedy Ben Revere. It’s still unknown whether Revere will ever become a starting center fielder in the major leagues. He manned center most of 2011 in Minnesota due to Span’s serious concussion, but the truth is that Revere was forced into action without sufficient time at triple-A. Although Revere has great speed and can track down almost any fly ball, he lacks a good arm, the ability to hit for any power and, thus far, the ability to reach base consistently at the major league level. At this point, however, the issue is moot: Span is under contract through 2014 (with a team option for 2015) and is performing well for the Twins. Unless Span is traded – which admittedly is a distinct possibility given his team friendly contract and the potential haul the Twins could get for him – only one of Span or Revere can man Puckett’s territory.

Span and Revere have the unique opportunity to continue the tradition established by Puckett. Aaron Hicks, the Twins first-round draft pick from 2008 who is starting his first full season at double-A New Britain, is at a pivotal point in his development. He’s no longer the young, top prospect he once was. He languished in single-A for longer than the Twins would have preferred. Hicks possesses both power and speed, and is a fantastic defender, but is also raw and inconsistent. He is entering his fifth year of minor league baseball, and the Twins would like 2012 to be his breakout season. Similarly, Joe Benson, currently playing at triple-A Rochester, is on the cusp of paying for the big league team. He played very well at New Britain in 2011, but didn’t fare as well in a September call-up to the Twins. There’s little doubt that Benson – one of the fastest players in the organization who also possesses power potential – will be up in Minnesota in 2013, at the latest. He could be the next long-term center fielder at Target Field. Perhaps it is incumbent on Span or Revere, if they haven’t yet, to reach out to these prospects. It’s what Puckett would have done.

Is some of this tradition hyperbole? Almost certainly. After all, what center fielder – the prima donna of the baseball diamond — wants to think about the day when he has to shift over to right field in favor of some young kid? Does that fact dilute the story? Not in this fan’s opinion. Nearly 30 years removed from the era in which Puckett began patrolling the Astroturf center field in Minneapolis, a bond – a connection – still exists between Puckett and his successors. None can ever replace Puckett, on the field or off, but it’s nice every now and then – as I watch Span track down a long fly ball to the deepest part of Target Field, just a couple hundred feet from where Puckett’s #34 hangs in perpetuity – to think about that lineage.

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