Hall welcomes a trio of Series heroes
New inductees Puckett, Winfield and Mazeroski all came up big on the World Series stage
By Ian Browne
Look at the three headliners who will be inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown on Sunday and you see an array of attributes that makes this a most diverse and compelling class.
Lifetime Minnesota Twin Kirby Puckett defined loyalty, passion, clutch performance and the rare ability to play like a gaudy athletic specimen despite his roly-poly physique.
Winfield (left) poses with former Twins' teammate Puckett.
You couldn't find an athlete who looked a more polar opposite of Puckett than Dave Winfield. One glance at Winfield, and the first thing you thought was that he must be a world-class athlete. A 6-foot-6 frame, big arms, those long and fast legs. It's just that he had a body that looked more reminiscent of a football tight end or basketball forward than power-hitting outfielder. However, Winfield developed himself into a scary all-around package of magnificence on the baseball field.
Though Winfield -- a native of Minnesota -- didn't remain entrenched in one city like Puckett did, he had the presence to become a leader in every clubhouse he ever walked into.
Despite their differences on the surface, Puckett and Winfield have shared a close bond for years. It dates all the way back to 1984 when Winfield, an established veteran of the Yankees, was so enthralled by the hustle and spirit of rookie Puckett that he took him out to dinner following that day's game at Yankee Stadium.
So it is fitting they will go in together as first-ballot Hall of Famers.
But the marvel of being getting to Cooperstown on the first try should not overshadow the Veteran's Committee election of Pittsburgh Pirate Bill Mazeroski, whose enshrinement could end up being a trendsetter.
Yes, Mazeroski is universally known as the first player to win a World Series with a home run. It was that Game 7 shot against the Yankees in 1960 that will forever define him.
But the reason he is finally getting his ticket to the mountaintop of his sport is because he is viewed in some circles as the best defensive second baseman of all time. It certainly isn't because of a career average of .260 and 138 total home runs.
In past years, defense has hardly ever been the deciding quality that gets a player to the Hall of Fame. But there is no disputing Mazeroski's vacuum cleaner glove is the biggest reason he will share center stage with Puckett and Winfield. Maybe this will eventually open a door for others like Keith Hernandez, who could dominate a game with the glove, to become Hall of Famers.
"I'm going in primarily defensively and I feel more proud and honored doing it that way," said Mazeroski, who spent his entire career (1956-72) with the Pirates. "There are very few defensive players in there and if I'm one of them I've got to be one of the best and something special. So it's a great feeling to be going in on the defensive side."
Mazeroski spent his entire career (1956-72) with the Pirates.
In fact, all three of these men had their share of highlights on both sides of the ball. But there is another similarity that links them. They all were pivotal members on World Championship teams.
Puckett (11th inning walkoff, Game 6, 1991) and Mazeroski hit two of the most memorable homers in World Series history. And Winfield fueled the Toronto Blue Jays to their first World Championship with the game-winning hit in Game 6 of the 1992 Fall Classic.
It should come as no surprise that all three of these men came up big in the most ultimate of situations. For if one thing ties all three together, it's that they were all the epitome of winners.
"I got the chance to play for 12 years," Puckett said. "In those 12 years, I ran every ball out, I ran to my position, I was the first one at ballpark and the last one to leave. When I retired, I never looked in the mirror and said I should have done this or done that. I was an overachiever. I had a love for this game that was unmatched. I left all my blood, sweat and tears on the field, which as an athlete is what you're supposed to do. I played every day like it was my last."
Which in large part is why Puckett -- whose career was halted just prior to the 1996 season by Glaucoma -- made it to the Hall of Fame on the first try despite having his career end while he was still near top of his game.
In fact, the 40-year-old Puckett becomes the third-youngest player to be enshrined, following immortals Lou Gehrig and Sandy Koufax.
"He hustled, played hard and did it with a smile on his face," Winfield said of Puckett. "You couldn't be mad at him. He beat you, but you couldn't be mad at him."
Puckett's career was shorter than he had hoped, but it was a whirlwind 12 years during which he cranked out 2,304 hits and 207 homers. By his fourth season -- 1987 -- his Twins were World Champions.
Winfield wouldn't experience such instant gratification. He spent his early years with the Padres trying to refine his considerable set of skills.
"When I came into the big leagues, I was an unpolished stone," Winfield said. "I had a lot to learn. The truth of the matter is that when you're a young man, you don't know what you're going to accomplish."
Or how much money you're going to make. Winfield was scooped up on the free-agent market by George Steinbrenner for what was then a record-setting 10-year, $23 million contract that made him a Yankee in 1981.
In New York -- the hub of the sports universe -- Winfield became a household name. Though he did get to the World Series that first season with the Yankees, Winfield didn't win that first World Championship until 1992, when he was a grizzled veteran with the Blue Jays.
And it was Winfield who ensured that Canada's first Major League Baseball championship was possible. He smashed a game-winning, two-run double down the left field line against the Braves in extra innings of decisive Game 6.
"The greatest highlight of my career? Getting that hit in the World Series and driving in the two runs," said Winfield. "We ended up winning the game and the Series. I was disappointed every year we didn't win. I knew there was nothing more that I could do. I couldn't be in better shape, I couldn't have worked harder. There was a certain amount of disappointment at the end of the season watching other people celebrate."
Thanks to Mazeroski, the Pirates got to celebrate in 1960.
"I am known for the home run. You mention my name and it's the home run [people think of.] I think it kept my name out there, and once they learned about the defensive stats everything came together.
And Sunday, three stars of intriguingly different backgrounds come together to become members of the top tier of their profession.
Ian Browne is a regional writer for MLB.com based in New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.