Twins fans have embraced Puckett -- and won't let go

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Keep Kirby campaign has become a creative endeavor. Songs have been written. Protest marches have been organized. The power of public opinion has been mobilized to pressure the Minnesota Twins into making sure that superstar outfielder Kirby Puckett doesn't slip out of town under cover of free agency.

Disgruntled fans marched on the Metrodome recently in protest after Twins owner Carl Pohlad reportedly vetoed a five-year contract proposal that was acceptable to Puckett.

The protest march was sponsored by a local radio station, which also put together a rock-and-roll spoof of the John Lennon anti-war hit "Give Peace a Chance."

The refrain: "All we are saying, is give Puck the cash."

No doubt, some local lyricist in Baltimore is busily penning something similar in honor of Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken, who is just as unsigned as Puckett and just as popular with his hometown fans. No one has marched on Camden Yards yet, but that is probably for fear that all available tickets for the protest would be sold out weeks in advance.

Back in Minneapolis, they are having a banner year, too. There are banners hanging all over the Metrodome. (One upper-deck favorite: "Sign Kirby or We'll Jump.") There are fans sporting homemade "Re-sign Kirby" T-shirts. There are talk-show hosts who haven't been able to change the subject for months.

The Twins have felt the sting of adverse public opinion, but they are not taking it as hard as you might think. The flip side would be worse.

"The worst thing that could happen to us would be if there was so much apathy that they don't care what you do," Twins general manager Andy MacPhail said. "What you lose sight of when there is criticism is the fact that you are trying to build a feeling that people are part of it. That's what you are working for. So this is understandable. It's almost desirable."

Puckett has captured the heart of the Twin Cities, more so than Rod Carew or Harmon Killebrew or anyone else who has !B inhabited any of the local sports palaces. He is, in his own squatty-bodied way, the personification of everything this spunky, small-market, two-trophies-in-five-years town is all about.

"There was a point where 80 percent of the calls were Kirby calls," said KFAN talk-show host Eric Nelson. "It has tailed off a little recently, but there is no question that Kirby is the most popular athlete in the history of the state."

Bigger than Carew

That is saying a lot. Carew was a pretty popular guy. Killebrew and football star Fran Tarkenton owned the area during their primes. But it apparently was nothing like this, though that is partly because the Twins were never this popular.

"Kirby could walk across the Mississippi River in the summertime," Nelson said.

That probably won't be necessary, but there is the frightening possibility that Puckett could walk across the state line and right into the hearts of his real hometown fans in Chicago. He grew up on the South Side, which is more than enough to prompt speculation that he'll be heavily pursued by the White Sox if he finishes the season without a new contract from the Twins.

Puckett won't say very much on the subject. He toned down the contract talk once the season began, though he has continued to negotiate with his bat. He's leading the league in hitting at .345 and ranks among the league leaders with 63 RBI. He is the unquestioned leader of a team that has won two world championships during the past five years. His value is not in dispute -- only his price.

Sound familiar?

Ripken is in an almost identical situation. He can become a free agent at the end of the season. His contract talks remain at a standstill. He might be the most popular athlete in Baltimore history, though you can make strong cases for Brooks Robinson and Johnny Unitas.

He and Puckett even have the same agent, which might explain why both are taking the same, low-key approach to the negotiations. Attorney Ron Shapiro never has been the shoot-from-the-lip type. His negotiating style best could be described as discreet. He never has tried to stir up public opinion in Baltimore, but, in this situation, the effort would be superfluous.

The public has been stirring for months here, too. The talk-show callers have been preoccupied with the Ripken contract situation since the end of last season. Maybe it is a result of the desertion complex that developed when the Colts left eight years ago, but fear runs deep that Ripken will sneak out of town next off-season and never come back.

Inconceivable? Probably. The Orioles have offered Ripken a five-year contract worth $30 million, so it isn't as if they have insulted him and backed him into a corner. Puckett would figure to have more reason to consider a move, if Pohlad really did pull a five-year, $27.5 million offer off the table.

"We're in the same boat, man," Puckett said recently. "It's a situation where you either do or you don't. That's what it comes down to."

Less than Sandberg

Puckett has stood by and watched Bobby Bonilla sign a five-year deal for $2 million more than that, though there is little question who is the more productive and popular player. Ryne Sandberg signed a contract this spring that could pay him as much as $7 million per year. Puckett's batting average and run-production stats during the past six years are decidedly superior, yet he apparently was willing to give the Twins five years for about the same price the Chicago Cubs paid Sandberg for four.

The negotiations have been suspended until the end of the season at his request, but the situation has drawn more national attention than the Ripken negotiations, which apparently are ongoing.

"I think ours have drawn more interest because of the size of our market and our history," MacPhail said. "I think a lot of people are interested in our situation because they see this as the direction things are going [for small-market teams]. The Ripken situation is a little different because of the new stadium and the great

attendance."

FTC There are more parallels than contradictions. The value of both players transcends their on-field performance. Both are solid citizens. Both have put down deep roots in the community, making the thought of their departure, well, unthinkable.

"That's an assumption we don't necessarily make," MacPhail said. "I think Kirby has made it clear that he wants to stay, and I have the impression that he will not insist on absolute top dollar, but you can't penalize a player who wants to stay. You don't turn it into a vindictive thing where you don't treat the player fairly."

If Twins management seems to have a firm grasp of the reality of the situation, there still is the public perception that Pohlad is standing in the way of a happy ending in the Puckett negotiations.

So the talk-show callers go crazy, and the fans give Puckett a standing ovation almost every time he comes out of the dugout at the Metrodome. There have been similar displays of support for Ripken at Oriole Park, though not nearly so orchestrated.

It seems unlikely that the Orioles would be swayed by such histrionics. Club president Larry Lucchino and owner Eli Jacobs are businessmen, and this is business, not politics. Rushing to sign Ripken isn't going to put more people in a stadium that already is full.

What's the rush?

The truth be told, there is no compelling reason for either side to rush to settlement. Ripken is going to get at least $6 million per year beginning in 1993, and he is beyond the point of worrying about financial security. The Orioles have made it clear they are willing to pay at least that much, so the timing of the required signatures doesn't appear to be as important as some fans would like to believe.

The same cannot necessarily be said for Twins fans, who have watched a parade of stars go looking for greener passbooks. Pitcher Jack Morris was the most recent to depart. Frank Viola was traded in 1989. The trend dates back to Carew and Larry Hisle.

"I think people remember that the Rod Carews and the Harmon Killebrews didn't finish their careers here and they saw how some players left after helping us win in 1987," MacPhail said. "They realize that some degree of turnover is good -- or even essential -- but Kirby is different. His situation is unique."

That's why there are placards and newspaper polls and protest marches in Minneapolis. All they are saying is give Puck the cash.

Salary drives?

Cal Ripken and Kirby Puckett could be free agents after this season. Good statistics can only boost their already-high value. How they've done in 1992 (through last night's games):

. . .... .... .....Ripken. ..................... Puckett

. ....... ..........268. .....Average............... .345

. ..................325. .....At-bats................ 342

. ...... ............44. . . Runs.................... 63

. ...................87...... Hits. ................. 118

. ...................14. .... Doubles................. 22

............... .....10. .....Homers. ................ 14

. ...................38. .... RBI. ................... 63

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