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Continued: After the game: The Kirby Puckett we never knew

The temperature in upstate New York was close to 90 degrees that sunny August afternoon in 2001, but Puckett didn't mind.

The day was his, and he was going to enjoy it.

With Tonya, their children, and 100 friends and relatives looking on, Puckett was minutes away from taking his place among the greatest baseball players of all time.

Everything he'd dreamed of and worked for was coming to fruition -- from Chicago's South Side to the minor league fields in Tennessee and California and, finally, to the big leagues, where he won over a state and a nation with his smile and his swing. This was his moment. This was the payoff -- his induction into the Hall of Fame.

"I have been blessed with so much and have so many to be thankful for," he said that day.

He was so moved by the hoopla that he told Leske he planned to return every year.

And he did. Every year thereafter, he made the trek to Cooperstown, hit the hotel lounge, grabbed a microphone and belted out a few tunes. Nobody sang "What A Wonderful World" better. It was like Louis Armstrong was right there in the room.

Every year he competed with former St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith over who was better dressed. The wardrobe planning began months in advance.

"He loved to compete. He loved to dress," said longtime friend Darryl Hughes of Atlanta.

The highlight always came the day before the induction ceremony, when the retired greats stepped off a trolley car to be introduced to fans before heading into a private red-carpet reception.

Most players got cheers. But when Puckett stepped out, the cheers turned to chants.

"Kirr-bee! Kirr-bee! Kirr-bee!"

Puckett always smiled and waved and stopped to sign autographs.

His baseball days were behind him, and back in Minnesota he was facing troubled times. But for one day in August, Kirby Puckett was Kirby Puckett again.

Staff writers Rachel Blount and Jay Weiner contributed to this report.

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