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Continued: Goodbye, Kirby

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

Puckett lore piled up quickly in 1987, when he led the Twins in hits as they came back from a three-games-to-two deficit against St. Louis in the best-of-seven World Series and won their first championship. He now had unqualified success to go with his uninhibited style.

"A 7- or 8-year-old kid watching the game would pick him out, and he just looked different," sportscaster Bob Costas said. "He had an affection for the game, and there was a kind of energy about it that was fun.

"I'm sure he took it seriously. You have to take it seriously in order to be a great player, but there was nothing grim about the way he went about it."

In 1991, the Twins again found themselves trailing in the World Series three games to two, this time to Atlanta.

But Puckett went around telling teammates to hop on his back for Game 6, that he would carry them to victory. Then he delivered two signature moments.

First, he made a leaping catch against the Metrodome's outfield Plexiglas in the third inning and robbed Ron Gant of an extra-base hit, saving a run from scoring. Then, in the 11th inning, Puckett became the ninth player in major league history to win a World Series game with a home run, hitting a changeup from Charlie Leibrandt over the outfield wall and pumping his arms in celebration as he rounded the bases.

"You couldn't hear yourself think in the ballpark," former Twins hitting coach Terry Crowley said Monday. "Kirby was on deck. The manager went to the mound, and Kirby said to me, 'If they leave this guy in the game, the game is over.'

"... Puckett hit a home run, rounded the bases, and as I went to shake hands with him, he gave me a bear hug and said, 'Crow, I told you!' That will stay in my mind forever."

Sudden end

Puckett turned 36 during spring training in 1996 and continued to torment Grapefruit League pitching.

On March 27, he went 2-for-3, raising his spring average to .344. The next day, Puckett woke up and couldn't see Tonya, though she was sitting right next to him.

Three laser surgeries later, Puckett knew he would never be able to see well enough to play again. His right retina had irreversible damage, caused by a blockage of blood vessels.

He arrived at his retirement news conference wearing his white No. 34 jersey. He also wore sunglasses covering the gauze patch over his right eye.

"It's the last time you're going to see Kirby Puckett in a Twins uniform," he said. "I want to tell you all that I love you all so much."

The room was packed with reporters and Twins players. Puckett gave another pep talk: "I want my young teammates to know right now -- when you put the uniform on, you put it on and you play with pride and integrity. The way that Kent Hrbek plays with it -- played with it. And Paul Molitor and Knobby [Chuck Knoblauch] and all you guys play with it. Just don't take it for granted because you never know. Tomorrow is not promised to any of us."

Fall from grace

When Puckett was elected to the Hall of Fame, on Jan. 17, 2001, he called it one of the proudest days of his life.

But the next year, as he and Tonya were involved in divorce proceedings, his life began to spiral downward.

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