Goodbye, Kirby

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 6, 2006 - 10:57 PM

On the day Kirby Puckett retired from baseball, he tried reassuring everyone that the sadness of losing sight in his right eye wouldn't diminish the spirit fans had seen him show for 12 seasons in a Twins uniform.

On the day Kirby Puckett retired from baseball, he tried reassuring everyone that the sadness of losing sight in his right eye wouldn't diminish the spirit fans had seen him show for 12 seasons in a Twins uniform.

"Kirby Puckett's going to be all right," he said in 1996. "Don't worry about me. I'll show up, and I'll have a smile on my face. The only thing I won't have is this uniform on. But you guys can have the memories of what I did when I did have it on."

On Monday, the sports world held those memories close as Puckett died in a Phoenix hospital, one day after suffering a massive stroke. He was 45.

"It's gut-wrenching," Twins President Dave St. Peter said. "We lost a dear friend. Really, somebody who in many ways was the foundation of this franchise for a long time."

Puckett rose from a Chicago housing project and became a Minnesota sports icon, bursting onto the scene in 1984 with an energetic style and an effervescent smile, each all his own.

He led the Twins to the World Series in 1987 and 1991, leaping into walls as their center fielder and swinging with a might that belied his stocky, 5-8 frame.

"This is a sad day for the Minnesota Twins, Major League Baseball and baseball fans everywhere," Twins owner Carl Pohlad said in a statement. "Eloise and I loved Kirby deeply. Kirby's impact on the Twins organization, the state of Minnesota and Upper Midwest is significant and goes well beyond his role in helping the Twins win two world championships."

Puckett was given last rites and died Monday afternoon, hospital spokeswoman Kimberly Lodge told the Associated Press. He wanted his organs to be donated. In a statement, family and friends thanked fans for their prayers.

Puckett often said he played every game as if it were his last, and sure enough, on March 28, 1996, he awoke with blurred vision in his right eye.

He never played again. He was found to have glaucoma and retired on July 12, 1996.

For the next five years, Puckett remained a smiling fixture on the Minnesota scene, working as an executive vice president for the Twins in an ambassadorial role.

In 2001, he became a first-ballot inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame with 2,304 career hits, 10 All-Star selections and six Gold Glove Awards.

Not all was as well in Puckett's personal life. His seemingly impeccable image began to tarnish in 2002, as details emerged from divorce proceedings with his wife, Tonya Puckett, who alleged that he had abused her and threatened to kill her.

Puckett said it wasn't true, but allegations from other women soon followed. He relinquished most ties to the Twins, moved his permanent residence to Arizona and disappeared from the public view.

Meteoric rise

Puckett grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes, a housing project on Chicago's South Side. He received no scholarship offers, so he went to work after high school on an assembly line for Ford Motor Co.

"I never forgot where I came from," Puckett said when he was elected to the Hall of Fame.

The Twins drafted him in 1982, and he reached the big leagues on May 8, 1984. He celebrated his arrival by getting four hits against the California Angels.

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