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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Puckett, Winfield savor honor
NEW YORK -- Baseball's newest Hall of Famers put on their jerseys for the first time Wednesday. Standing side by side, 5-foot-8 Kirby Puckett looked up at 6-6 Dave Winfield and said, "You've got the tall and short of it right here."
Puckett recalled arriving in the majors in 1984 and being invited out to dinner by Winfield, then an 11-year veteran.
"We talked about life, the things you should do, the way to carry yourself," Puckett said. "I was 5-8, 195. It was the last time I saw the hundreds."
It was a rite of passage for Puckett, the same kind of help other players had given Winfield. "I remember my first year, when I came into Atlanta," he said, "Dusty Baker and Ralph Garr calling me over, Garr with that high pitched voice, `Hey, Win-field, come talk to us."'
Major league players belong to an exclusive fraternity and it is the camaraderie that they miss when it is over. For Winfield and Puckett, that link was restored by their election to Cooperstown.
"You miss the shared relationship with the guys," Winfield said. "I miss going from first to third on a single. I miss throwing guys out and wagging my finger at them. Playing baseball, you're a grown man living a child's dream. It's like raising kids: hard work, but a lot of fun."
Puckett echoed those thoughts.
"I miss being a little boy doing a man's job," he said. "Little boys don't have to grow up."
Puckett said he was an instigator, skilled in needling teammates. He said he could get two players to start arguing. "I'd go out and hit, come back inside and they'd still be arguing," he said.
"I could hit and talk at the same time. Baseball's not like golf. People were always screaming when I hit, so it was the same for me."
His size was an issue for Puckett starting out. "If I listened to people who told me what I could do and couldn't do, I wouldn't be here," he said. "I was fast and I could steal a base. I was a good bunter. My size had nothing to do with it."
Then he looked at Winfield.
"You've got 6-6, 260 and you've got 5-8, 260," he said. "It doesn't matter."
Puckett spent his entire 12-year career with the Minnesota Twins and still works for the club. Winfield was a baseball vagabond, playing for six teams over 22 seasons. He also was among the first multimillion-dollar free agents, signing a 10-year, $22 million contract with the New York Yankees in 1980.
"I thought the contract was fair," he said. "I remember people in the stands with their arms crossed, looking at me, seeing if I could live up to it."
Winfield helped the Yankees to the 1981 World Series but managed just one hit in 22 at-bats as New York lost in six games. Owner George Steinbrenner was outraged by the loss and felt obliged to apologize to the city. Winfield said he apologized to Steinbrenner.
"I told George, 'I owe you one,"' he said.
It was a debt he never could pay. The Winfield Yankees never made it back to the Series and Steinbrenner put much of the onus on the high-paid slugger, at one point dismissing him as "Mr. May," a putdown that referred to his early season success and late-season slumps.
Winfield moved to California for two seasons, drove in the winning run in the 1992 World Series for Toronto and finished with two years in Minnesota, where he got his 3,000th hit. The runner he drove in with the hit happened to be Puckett.
The Steinbrenner-Winfield feud has been smoothed over. The owner issued a statement congratulating the slugger on his election and said the Yankees look forward to honoring him this season.
That doesn't mean Winfield will have a Yankees' hat on his Cooperstown plaque.
"The cap is not an issue for me," he said. "I never get ahead of myself. The hat I'm wearing now is the Hall of Fame."
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