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Puckett and Hunter were good, Griffey was better

June 16, 2008

by Matt Kane

Minnesota Twins fans, like myself, have been blessed with outstanding center fielders for much of the past 20-plus years.

Nobody will forget Kirby Puckett, and what he did in leading the Twins to World Series titles in 1987 and 1991. And, over the past decade-plus, the plastic pasture Puckett famously roamed in the Metrodome was also covered phenomenally by Torii Hunter.

If we can forget about a few of the center fielders Tom Kelly threw out there in between the Puckett and Hunter years — like Rich Becker — we can smile and laugh in disbelief at how good Puckett and Hunter were.

Puckett was a six-time Rawlings Golf Glove winner, and Hunter won his seventh last season. Think about how amazing that is.

Puckett came up with the Twins in 1984, meaning, in the past 24 Major League Baseball seasons, Twins’ center fielders won 13 American League gold gloves at one position.

Puckett won four consecutive golf gloves from 1986-89, and two consecutive from 1991-92. And Hunter has won his six all in a row, from 2001-07.

The 1990 American League outfield gold gloves went to Boston’s Ellis Burks, Seattle’s Ken Griffey Jr., and Texas’ Gary Pettis.

In the eight seasons that came between Puckett’s final award and Hunter’s first, one name appeared on seven of those American League outfield gold glove-winner lists — Griffey.

Griffey did not win the award in 2000, but he was an award-winner with Puckett from 1990-92, and finished his American League career with 10 gold gloves.

In the last handful of years, I hadn’t thought much about Griffey.

His move to the Cincinnati Reds and the National League seemed injury-plagued and uneventful. If I wouldn’t have gone to a few of the Reds’ spring training games in Sarasota during my stint in Florida, or, if my roommate wasn’t a Reds fan, I probably would have all but forgotten Griffey was even playing.

Griffey’s name resurfaced last week, though, thanks to him hitting his 600th career home run, and I actually paused to think about what kind of player he was in his prime.

What I remembered was how dominant a player he was. Although he never called himself a home run hitter early in his career, Griffey’s numbers don’t lie.

As a rookie in 1989, Griffey, then 19 years old, hit 16 home runs and drove in 61 RBI in 127 games. He only got better from then.

In 1993, he recorded the first of his seven 40-plus home run seasons with 45. Four seasons later, in 1997, he eclipsed the 50 home run mark with 56, and won the American League MVP award. He followed that season with another 56-home run campaign in 1998. Griffey had one less RBI (146 to 147) in 1998 than he did in 1997, but, somehow, finished fourth in the AL MVP voting.

While we Twins fans fell in love with our two gold glove center fielders, I don’t think any of us could argue that neither Puckett nor Hunter was a better overall player than Griffey.

During the 1990s, when Michael Jordan was Nike’s basketball man, Griffey was the company’s baseball man. But, unlike Jordan, Griffey never seemed comfortable in front of the camera or receiving all the publicity that came with being his sport’s best player.

That translated into the reluctance for granting interviews Griffey seemed to have.

I would liked to have heard more from Griffey during his heyday, but I’m more appreciative that he let his playing do the talking.

After Griffey hit his 600th home run May 9 against the Florida Marlins, I heard someone comment that Griffey is aging as a baseball player should near the end of his career. He is battling injuries, and his numbers are dwindling each season.

It is refreshing to see Griffey slow down with age, instead of somehow getting better, like so many of his peers seem to be doing.

I think a lot of us true baseball fans wish he could hang on for just a few more seasons. Nothing would be sweeter than to see Griffey atop the all-time home run list.