Kirby Puckett awoke and looked around for his wife. For 12 years he'd made a living with his quick eye and keen depth perception, hitting and catching baseballs that zipped and curved and dropped at high speeds.
But now, only days from the start of the 1996 big league season, something was wrong. A black dot obscured the vision in his right eye. He told reporters later that he couldn't see his wife, Tonya, just a few feet away.
At first, he thought he had just slept wrong. But as the morning wore on and his vision didn't clear up, he got scared.
"I can see," he said later that day. "People have held fingers up in front of my face 100 times -- but I don't think I'll be able to hit."
He was right. Four months later, Puckett sat in a press room at the Metrodome wearing sunglasses and a gauze eye patch. He was there to say goodbye.
Puckett had been hit in the face by a pitch 10 months before, but doctors said that hadn't caused the vision loss. Glaucoma was the culprit, and the blindness was irreversible.
For Puckett, the game was over.
"Kirby Puckett's going to be all right," he told reporters, as Tonya and his teammates wept. "Don't worry about me."
But those who knew him best worried. The game was all he knew; it was what he loved.
Within months, the Twins had hired him for the front office, calling season ticket holders and lobbying legislators about a new ballpark. But that wasn't a good fit for him; it wasn't work that he loved. And it couldn't match the sweet satisfaction of pumping that leg, swinging the bat and crushing a fastball deep into the bleacher seats.
"You did not see Kirby's pain," Tonya Puckett said in a recent interview. "Kirby was a very different breed. He wasn't like you or me."
His friend Steve Stinski said that Puckett showed only his cheerful side to most people. "It was so hard to read into him, because he'd never let anybody know he wasn't happy," Stinski said.
But the pain was there. His fishing pal, Sherm Leske, often sensed it when he watched Twins games from Puckett's Metrodome suite.
Leske noticed that Puckett seldom paid attention to the field. While Leske and others were glued to the action, he said, Puckett joked with friends and made sure their glasses were filled with beer and their plates were loaded with chicken wings, veggies and dessert.
Once, when former Twin Chili Davis returned to the stadium to face his old team, Puckett stopped to watch his friend hit.
But that was rare.
"You just had the feeling that he'd just loved to have been out there," Leske said. "He couldn't play the game anymore, and it hurt to watch it."