After the game: The Kirby Puckett we never knew

As a player, he had it all: Adulation of an entire state, respect and friendship of teammates, two World Series rings. But after he lost sight in one eye, the man they called Puck lost his compass and began his slide.

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The sun was slipping behind the mountains of the Arizona desert as the party at Kirby Puckett's place kicked into high gear.

A buffet of tacos and fajitas had been set up near the back-yard pool that October afternoon in 2005, along with a margarita machine, courtesy of the Cantina Laredo restaurant, which was catering the bash.

As party guests sipped cocktails and splashed in the pool, restaurant manager Dave Chmurzynski stood at the granite kitchen counter, chopping tomatoes.

You need a beer, he recalls Puckett telling him.

No, Chmurzynski said. I've got to get back to the restaurant. Puckett insisted. Come on, man, have a beer.

Puckett popped the top off a bottle of Corona and handed it to him, then leaned against the kitchen counter and took a sip from a beer of his own. What's your story? Puckett asked Chmurzynski. Tell me your story. And then Puckett told his.

Puckett was a jocular man who loved to laugh. He seldom turned serious, even with his closest friends. But now, in the privacy of his kitchen with a man he barely knew, he told a story tinged with pride and regret.

"He was very bittersweet," Chmurzynski said later. "He shared things with me I had no business knowing about."

He spoke of growing up poor on the streets of Chicago's South Side and dreaming of the big leagues. Life had been hard, but he'd made it, first with the Minnesota Twins, then all the way to the Hall of Fame.

I was just a kid playing ball, and I loved it, Chmurzynski recalls Puckett saying. It just happened. I never thought I'd be here.

Puckett talked, too, about the hard times that came later. The glaucoma. The nasty divorce. The humiliating sexual assault charge and trial.

The bitter falling out with the Twins. Leaving Minnesota.

He'd lost everything that had been important to him -- the game, his family, his job, his home, his reputation.

At times, Puckett turned pensive as he reflected on his life and his decisions -- some good, some very bad.

He didn't think that he was a bad man, he said. He cared what people thought.

As tough as the early years had been, the later years were much harder. The biggest challenges in Puckett's life all came after the game had ended.

• • •

Puckett was called up from Class AAA Toledo on May 7, 1984, and caught a flight to Anaheim, where the Twins were playing the Angels. He arrived just before game time and had to borrow $83 to pay his cab fare. Twins manager Billy Gardner, who had been wondering where "Punkett" was, kept him on the bench. The next day, Puckett got a record-tying four hits as the Twins won 5-0.

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