FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Kirby Puckett is becoming a stranger in his own clubhouse. Every spring it gets harder to find a familiar face. Every year is a rebuilding year as the small-market Minnesota Twins try to find their way around in baseball's new economic world.
The Twins used to be a nonstop fraternity party, and they had fun, fun, fun until Carl Pohlad took the payroll away. Now, nearly all of the players who took part in the club's surprising World Series championships in 1987 and 1991 are gone and Puckett is pondering an uncertain future.
Should he stay or should he go? He'll have that decision to make at the end of this season, because Baltimore-based agent/attorney Ron Shapiro insisted on a reopener clause in Puckett's five-year contract that gives him the option of becoming a free agent. On the day he arrived in camp this spring, he sent a shudder through the Twin Cities when he said he was considering it.
Kent Hrbek has retired. Shane Mack is in Japan. Gary Gaetti and Greg Gagne are in Kansas City. The Twins are years from returning to the World Series. Puckett, who turned 34 last month, may not have that many years left. What is there to keep him in Minnesota?
"I'm just leaving it open right now," Puckett said later. "Ron [Shapiro] did that for everybody. He did it for a reason. But what am I going to do, go somewhere else and make $300,000 a year?"
Point well taken. The $30 million contract that he signed in 1992 to stay in Minnesota was below market value at the time, but the $15.6 million that he'll make over the next three years is not. The financial impact of the eight-month players strike is hitting free agents hard, and there figure to be some financial aftershocks in 1996.
Shapiro negotiated the reopener clause for Puckett and Cal Ripken, knowing that the market could change dramatically over the life of their five-year contracts. He was right, but it did not change for the better.
Ripken doesn't appear to have any reason to leave Baltimore next year. Puckett will have to tread cautiously, but there remains a healthy market for the game's premier players. He might be able to match his Twins salary a year from now and play for a contending team -- perhaps even the Orioles. It is a question of loyalty and competitive fire. He wants to play on another winner. He wants to finish his career in Minnesota. What do you do?
"No matter what I do, I want to be a professional," Puckett said. "That's why I don't want to say much more about it. I still have a job to do. I'm just going to leave it alone. The front office has got to do what it has to do. I've always known this game is a business. That's the part that the fans don't see, though now I think it's becoming more apparent."
Perhaps it was a purpose pitch. Maybe Puckett was just trying to send a message to the new front-office hierarchy. He had a chance to leave the Twins two years ago and go home to Chicago for more money, but he took less to stay. He liked the idea of playing his entire career in one place. That hasn't &L; changed.
"I've been here all this time," he said. "I've been through all of the ups and downs and I still have two world championship rings. Dave Winfield had to play 20 years to get one. Ernie Banks never got one. I'm fortunate in a lot of ways. Let's just leave it open and see what happens."
No one in the Twins' clubhouse seemed particularly surprised by his sentiments. The old gang started breaking up even before the club won in 1991. Frank Viola was the first big name to go. Then Gaetti. Then the others. The two World Series titles often are held up as proof that small-market teams can compete, but it was the Twins' success that inflated the market for their top players. They could not afford to keep all of them.
"I think we all want to win," said Twins manager Tom Kelly, who managed both championship teams. "He knows how pleasurable is to win. He's not the first. It's the nature of the beast, wanting to win and be on a championship team. That's good. Guys that are passive, I'm not sure you want those kind of guys on your club."
Twins fans had gotten comfortable with the old nucleus of the team, but only a few of those players are still around. Closer Rick Aguilera remains from the 1991 team. So do second baseman Chuck Knoblauch and starting pitchers Scott Erickson and Kevin Tapani, though there has been speculation that Tapani will be the next to go.
"You just have to accept the fact that the business of the game dictates how it works," Kelly said. "Business has become the dominant factor. The coming and going of players has become (( more commonplace. Fifteen years ago, it was uncommon for a player to leave. Now, it's common for large numbers of players to leave. Teams lose identity. The business of the game is more prevalent."
Still, each departure hits home with Puckett, who is coming off a strike-shortened season in which he was on pace to challenge his career high for home runs (31) and a lock to set a career high for RBIs. He batted .317 with 20 homers and 112 RBIs, a pace that would have left him with 28 homers and 157 RBIs over a full season.
He remains the most consistent hit man in the major leagues, averaging 194 hits over his 11 seasons, and that does not factor in the two months lost to the strike last year or the month he spent in the minor leagues in 1984. He excels consistently. He wants the team to be in a position to do the same.
"Puck's a very competitive guy," said Aguilera. "He likes to win. He has a lot of peers in this game who look up to him. I'm sure he wants to be on a team that would be respectable. I can't say how he feels, but I think he may feel that the team is not making the moves that other organizations are making to win."
That perception could change if the youthful Twins roster shows that it is better than advertised. If a couple of young pitchers can step forward the way Erickson did in '91, there might be enough excitement at the Metrodome to keep Puckett around for a few more years.
"We've got guys who can play," Aguilera said. "In '91, I don't think that we came into spring training thinking that we were going to win the World Series and we did. It isn't always signing free agents that makes you a winner."
The personnel changes have not been restricted to the 40-man roster. The Twins' front office also lost a big-name player when general manager Andy MacPhail became president of the Chicago Cubs.
That only makes speculation about Puckett's possible departure even more plausible, since the Cubs were the hometown team that almost persuaded him to leave Minnesota the last time. But Puckett doesn't sound like a man who really wants to go anywhere.
"Every year, you see guys leaving, but you have to remember that baseball is just a small part of life," Puckett said. "I've been able to play 11 years in the big leagues. That's a long time. I can just say, thank God for letting me play to the best of my ability. This game doesn't owe me anything."
The Twins' Kirby Puckett is one of a rare breed in baseball these days, a player who has remained with the same team for an extended career. Here's a list of active players who have been with the same team since 1984:
Player, team .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..First year
Lou Whitaker, Detroit .. .. .. .. .. .. ..1977
Alan Trammell, Detroit .. .. .. .. .. .. .1977
Cal Ripken, Orioles .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .1981
Ozzie Smith*, St. Louis .. .. .. .. .. ...1982
Don Mattingly, N.Y. Yankees .. .. .. .. ..1982
Tony Gwynn, San Diego .. .. .. .. .. .. ..1982
Darren Daulton, Philadelphia .. .. .. . ..1983
Roger Clemens, Boston .. . .. .. .. .. ...1984
Kirby Puckett, Minnesota .. .. .. .. .. ..1984
Mark Gubicza, Kansas City .. .. .. .. .. .1984
*-Smith was traded to the Cardinals in 1982 after spending four years with the Padres.