In 1986, Puckett hit nine home runs and batted .389 in April to earn American League player of the month honors. The numbers signaled his evolution at the plate; the previous season, he hit only four home runs in 691 at-bats. "You never see me down," he said. "I'm always a person that says, 'If things aren't going my way now, hey, they'll change.' "
Without baseball, Puckett filled his nights by inviting friends to his home in Edina to throw back the beers and tell stories into the wee hours.
Sometimes they played poker --Tonya and her mother played, too. And Puckett hated to lose. If the game was just for fun, he'd sometimes cheat. And when he got caught, he'd throw his head back and let out a high-pitched giggle that rolled up from deep inside his chest before filling the room.
He spent time at his new cabin, too. It was on Deer Lake, a few miles east of St. Croix Falls, Wis. He and Leske fell into the habit of fishing the lake's hot spots together just about every weekend morning Puckett was there.
Floating on the calm water, downing chocolate doughnuts and casting a line ... it wasn't baseball, but it was almost as good. Hauling in the fish became a summertime obsession nearly as engrossing as hauling in pop flies.
Puckett and Leske were an unlikely pair -- the bald professional athlete and the graying village president of Dresser, Wis. Now 71, Leske met Puckett in the fall of 1996 when Kirby and Tonya bought the cabin. Leske had come by to inspect the property, and when he got there, he found Puckett standing in the driveway, all smiles and extending his hand.
Ever fish this lake? Puckett asked him.
Yeah, Leske said.
A week later, they were out in Leske's boat, catching their limit in crappies.
When they came ashore, Leske said he dragged the fish to a cleaning table at the base of a pine tree while Puckett stood back and watched.
We've got 100 crappies here, Puck, and I'm not cleaning them all, Leske says he told him.
Sherm, I've never cleaned a fish, Puckett said.
Well, we'll learn how, won't we, Puck? Leske said.
Puckett watched as Leske plopped that first crappie onto the table. He slid the knife around a gill, then turned the blade slightly and ran it across the side of the fish to separate meat from bone. He flipped the fish over and repeated the move.
Now it was Puckett's turn.