Manuel fondly recalls friend Puckett

Manuel fondly recalls friend Puckett

ST. PETERSBURG -- Charlie Manuel noticed the boxing gloves hanging in the clubhouse, and he knew exactly what to do.

Within hours, he was exchanging body blows and uppercuts with future Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, then a much heralded Twins prospect. Despite being outweighed by some 30 pounds, the 180-pound Puckett went jab for jab with Manuel.

"Inside, he was strong," Manuel recalled on Tuesday. "When he backed away, I had a good jab. I loved playing with him. He was genuine in everything he did."

On the day after Puckett passed away at the age of 45, Manuel spent the morning before the Phillies faced the Devil Rays reminiscing about his favorite player, the guy he most enjoyed watching and the player he often cites when describing someone who played the game correctly.

This wasn't the somber, devastated Manuel who received the grim news on Monday and came close to breaking down several times. Instead, Manuel was telling stories about the man he admired, laughing as he recalled each tale.

"That's too young for him to die," the Phillies manager said. "I feel sad, but the good times I had with him are what I'll remember most. He had so much fun. I can honestly say [he] was one guy who gave everything he had every minute, from the time he stepped in the clubhouse to the game was over."

Manuel fondly remembered the day he first saw the broad-shouldered, barrel-chested Puckett in Orlando, Fla., then the Twins' Minor League training facility. The two started with the Twins in 1982, with Manuel beginning his off-the-field career as a scout and Puckett having been selected third overall in the First-Year Player Draft.

Manuel followed Puckett's quick ascent from the Minor Leagues to 10 All-Star appearances, and the pair stayed in touch while Manuel coached Twins' Minor Leaguers through 1987.

"I remember when I first saw him," said Manuel. "He was a tremendous player. He wanted to be the best. He was the best."

If Manuel wanted to describe passion, he'd mention Puckett running through walls. If he wanted to relay getting the most of one's ability, he'd relate how Puckett did things.

If he wanted to praise leadership, he cited Puckett's postseason performance, especially the 11th-inning walk-off homer off the Braves' Charlie Leibrandt in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series.

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"Those teams won because of him," said Manuel. "You look at Puckett when they won those World Series. They had some good players on his team, but he was the guy who put the spark in them. I always tell players about Kirby. I always tell things he did as a player, how he went about playing the game."

Fate dictated that Manuel saw what turned out to be Puckett's final Major League game, on Sept. 28, 1995. That was the day Cleveland's Dennis Martinez hit Puckett in the face. The following spring, glaucoma in Puckett's right eye deprived baseball of one of its greatest ambassadors.

"He would have gotten 3,000 hits and then some," said Manuel. "He was that kind of player."

"Kirby was the first name on everyone's list," said infielder Chris Coste, who grew up watching Puckett and mimics his batting stance. "That smile and that magnetic personality. He was a huge role model for so many people in that area. He was a huge influence in the way I hit."

Manuel also remembers Puckett as a compassionate man who checked on him regularly when Manuel suffered a heart attack in 1991. He joked the other day that Puckett used to send him a bottle of Seagram's V.O. whiskey each month until the heart attack, then sent a note that read, 'No more V.O."

When Manuel and Puckett got tired of boxing, they turned to wrestling, and those matches often ended up with Puckett bench-pressing Manuel.

"We used to play rough," said Manuel. "He used to pick me up, grab me by the shirt and we'd wrestle."

Manuel caught some highlights of Puckett's career, as they were being aired on television on Tuesday, and couldn't believe so much time had passed. To him, it's still 1982, and Puckett is about to throw him a right cross.

The Phillies manager, who said he last spoke with Puckett in May, said he wants to go to Puckett's memorial service. As a fan and a friend, he owes him that much.

"I want to go, and there's a good possibility I'll go," he said. "As much as I love Puckett, I should go."

Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.