FORT MYERS, FLA. – The Twins made two announcements on March 31, 1987: They had released outfielder Mickey Hatcher and acquired left fielder Dan Gladden from San Francisco for three pitching prospects.
Gladden was booked on a flight to Orlando, where the Twins were concluding the exhibition schedule.
“Before I left, I asked the Giants general manager, Al Rosen, for a Twins press guide,’’ Gladden said. “I wanted to do some homework on that ballclub.’’
One new teammate not in the guide was infielder Al Newman. He had been acquired by the Twins in late February, after press time.
“I knew Newman was there,’’ Gladden said. “I had taken out the second baseman on a double play and it scored the winning run for us in Montreal. After the game, Newman was screaming at me, ‘I’m going to get you, you …’
“First thing I did when I walked into that maze of a clubhouse at Tinker Field was ask, ‘Where’s Newman?’ I found him back in an out-of-sight corner and said, ‘Do you want to go?’ Newmie laughed and said, ‘No, we’re teammates now.’ ’’
Newman got up to shake hands with Gladden, as did the player sitting next to him, Kirby Puckett.
“That was the first time I met Puck,’’ Gladden said.
He paused and said: “I played next to him for five years. That had to be longer than any everyday outfielder lined up next to Puck.’’
This conversation took place on Saturday morning. Earlier in the week, I had asked to talk to Gladden for a newspaper piece to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Puckett’s death.
Gladden stared in silence for a moment and then said: “That’s right … Sunday is the 6th.’’
March 6, 2006, was the last time Gladden saw Kirby Puckett:
He was in Puckett’s room with Chili Davis, another former teammate, and Ken Griffey Jr., and Chili’s brother, a pastor, in the critical care unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix.
“We grabbed Puck’s hand, we told him we loved him, and Chili’s brother offered a great message of prayer,’’ Gladden said. “A few minutes later, they took Puck off life support.’’
Gladden is of the same mind as most people who interacted with Puckett — teammates and rivals, Twins fans and media members. We prefer to remember the great times and great laughs with Puck, rather than the public troubles that surfaced in the final 2 ½ years of his short life.
The day we remember most is Oct. 26, 1991. That was Game 6 of the World Series, an elimination game for the Twins, against the Atlanta Braves.
Puckett gave the Twins a two-run lead in the first on an RBI triple and a run scored. And in the third came the catch off the Plexiglas in left center.
“Puck liked to play in right center and to play deep,’’ Gladden said. “That’s how he would make those great catches over the low fence in deep center and up against the tarp in right center.
“I don’t remember him ever going up high on the Plexiglas in left center to make a catch, until [Ron] Gant hit that ball in Game 6. Every time I see the replay, I say, ‘Look how far his feet are off the turf.’
“You can see me backing it up, getting ready to play the ricochet. The Dome was never louder than when he caught it. That’s the greatest 100 yards of my life, coming off the field with Puck.’’
There is a large wall of blue-painted concrete on the back of the Twins’ minor league clubhouse, office and workout area here at the Lee County Sports Complex.
Half the wall reads “This Is Twins Territory’’ and then there is a huge aluminum cutout of Puckett, with his head and glove above the roof, a replica of the Game 6 catch. Next to it is the quotation: “And, we’ll see you tomorrow night.’’
Those are two different moments in Twins history, of course — The Catch, and then Jack Buck’s eternal salute to Puckett’s Game 6-winning home run in the 11th inning.
“When they brought in Charlie Leibrandt, a lot of guys were scrambling to get to the bat rack,’’ Gladden said. “Puck was first.’’
Legend has it that, during Leibrandt’s warmup, Puckett was screaming through the din at fellow Chicagoan and bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek: “This one’s over, Stelly.’’
Gladden smiled at that version and said: “That’s not the way Chili Davis tells it. Chili said that Puck told him, ‘I can bunt on this guy.’ And Chili said, ‘Bunt? Hit it out.’ ”
Which he did. Which caused Buck to tell the world, “And, we’ll see you tomorrow night.’’
One night later, Gladden scored the winning run on Gene Larkin’s fly ball over a drawn-in outfield in the 10th inning to get the 1-0 victory for mighty Jack Morris. It would be Gladden’s last game for the Twins.
He returned in 2000 to do some broadcasting for the club and is now entering his 13th season as half the radio team.
It also will be the 20th season since Gladden walked into that dump of a home clubhouse at Tinker Field.
“Remember, I was coming from the Giants, with Jeffrey Leonard,’’ Gladden said. “He was the poster guy for surly ballplayers. I remember Puck being in that corner of the maze and the media guys all going back there to find him, as much to get some laughs as quotes.
“When the Giants at that time got on you, they meant it. I had a fight with Leonard a couple of years before the trade. You can only take so much.’’
Famously, Gladden also had a fight with Twins second baseman Steve Lombardozzi away from the ballpark. That was personal, not the result of an attitude that permeated the clubhouse.
“Puck was the best guy in the clubhouse I was ever around,’’ Gladden said. “We would wind him up, and he was hilarious. We won two World Series. I give Puck more credit for that than anyone.’’
Gladden paused. Looked out toward the field where Puckett last played a ballgame, an exhibition in 1996, and said:
“Ten years. That’s hard to believe.’’