03/07/06 5:53 PM ET
Manuel fondly recalls friend Puckett
Phils manager: 'He wanted to be the best. He was the best'
By Ken Mandel / MLB.com
"Those teams won because of him," said Manuel. "You look at Puckett when they won those World Series. They had some good players on his team, but he was the guy who put the spark in them. I always tell players about Kirby. I always tell things he did as a player, how he went about playing the game."Fate dictated that Manuel saw what turned out to be Puckett's final Major League game, on Sept. 28, 1995. That was the day Cleveland's Dennis Martinez hit Puckett in the face. The following spring, glaucoma in Puckett's right eye deprived baseball of one of its greatest ambassadors. "He would have gotten 3,000 hits and then some," said Manuel. "He was that kind of player." "Kirby was the first name on everyone's list," said infielder Chris Coste, who grew up watching Puckett and mimics his batting stance. "That smile and that magnetic personality. He was a huge role model for so many people in that area. He was a huge influence in the way I hit." Manuel also remembers Puckett as a compassionate man who checked on him regularly when Manuel suffered a heart attack in 1991. He joked the other day that Puckett used to send him a bottle of Seagram's V.O. whiskey each month until the heart attack, then sent a note that read, 'No more V.O." When Manuel and Puckett got tired of boxing, they turned to wrestling, and those matches often ended up with Puckett bench-pressing Manuel. "We used to play rough," said Manuel. "He used to pick me up, grab me by the shirt and we'd wrestle." Manuel caught some highlights of Puckett's career, as they were being aired on television on Tuesday, and couldn't believe so much time had passed. To him, it's still 1982, and Puckett is about to throw him a right cross. The Phillies manager, who said he last spoke with Puckett in May, said he wants to go to Puckett's memorial service. As a fan and a friend, he owes him that much. "I want to go, and there's a good possibility I'll go," he said. "As much as I love Puckett, I should go."
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.