CHICAGO — He made himself into one of the best players of his generation in Major League Baseball in Minnesota, but that journey actually began in the Chicago area.
Growing up in the city, late Twins star Kirby Puckett would really begin to make a name for himself at a junior college in River Grove, doing so alongside a former Cubs & White Sox outfielder.
“He was pretty much the best player that I’ve ever played with,” said Lance Johnson about late Baseball Hall of Famer and Triton College teammate in their one year at the school.
Now that part of his career is being honored by the National Junior College Athletic Association as they’ll posthumously induct Puckett into their Hall of Fame during a ceremony on Thursday in Charlotte. That provides those in Chicago, including Johnson, the opportunity to reflect on his one incredible season with the Trojans.
“He was unbelievable. He’s probably the first player that I saw that could do whatever he wanted, when he wanted, and when the team needed it,” said Johnson of Puckett, who died in 2006. “If the team needed a double, he hit a double. If the team needed a home run, he hit a home run. It was incredible.
“Just to play with him and see that and to see him and to see him at the major league level doing the same thing was quite amazing.”
Puckett attended Calumet High School and initially started his college baseball career at Bradley University in Peoria. After the death of his father, the outfielder decided to transfer to Triton College and was actually selected in the Winter Draft by the Twins in 1982.
Since the financial offer from Minnesota wasn’t what he’d hoped, Puckett stayed with the Trojans for the 1982 season and had a campaign for the ages. He hit .472 with 28 doubles, eight triples, and 16 home runs to go along with 42 stolen bases.
The outfielder’s efforts earned him first-team NJCAA All-American honors and was named their national Player of the Year as well. Puckett along with Johnson helped Triton to the NJCAA College World Series that season, where his .688 during that tournament remains a record.
While his performance was certainly easy for Johnson to remember, there were other intangibles that meant even more to Johnson and helped him during his 14-year career in Major League Baseball.
“He was a born leader. Flat-out born leader,” said Johnson of Puckett. “When you play with people who are really good, the qualities rub off on you. He was definitely one of those guys. Ultimately, I had a change to kinda end up being like that as well when I was New York, we had the ‘Big 3’ – me, (Bernard) Gilkey and (Todd) Hundley – and everyone followed our lead.
“I definitely got those qualities from Kirby. There’s no doubt about it.”
The two would cross paths a number of times after Triton, first in the 1987 World Series when Johnson was a rookie for the Cardinals and Puckett was an emerging star for the eventual champion Twins.
They’d be division rivals in both the American League West and Central divisions when Johnson joined the White Sox in 1988. The center field would then play a season and a half with the Mets before being traded to the Cubs, where he played through 1999 and before finishing his career with the Yankees in 2000.
“I would have to say he was the ultimate professional and the ultimate friend,” said Johnson. “I miss him.”
Larry Hawley has more from Johnson on Puckett’s posthumous induction into the NJCAA Hall of Fame from WGN News Now in the video above.