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.

• • •

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."

• • •

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.

The Gold Glove outfielder who was so smooth on the field butchered those first few crappies badly, tearing out more skin and bone than meat.

"It was just comical," Leske said later. "You could see he felt bad. But I'll be damned, after three or four fish, he could filet as well as anyone."

• • •

In August 1987, Puckett went 10-for-11 against Milwaukee, tying the major-league record for most hits in consecutive games. "Sure, it's a day I'll never forget," Puckett said. "But there's nothing more I can do about it now. It's all over, and there's another game Tuesday. I just hope I don't lose this swing over the off day."

• • •

Sometimes the baseball guys called and asked him to come back full time to work with players, but Puckett always said no. The cabin life was too good. Summers were for fishing, now.

"There was no way you were ever going to get him off that lake," said his friend Mike Casey. "In Puck's mind, he'd earned this. This was his heaven."

The cabin -- surrounded by pines and oaks and nestled into the hillside overlooking a spring-fed muskie lake -- was where Puckett, Tonya and their kids, Catherine and Kirby Jr., went to relax, swim and barbecue. They celebrated July 4th there, with spectacular fireworks displays that sometimes rattled the neighbors.

After the marriage ended, it remained his refuge.

He spent the night there that first Christmas after he and Tonya split up. He was so lonely that he went over to Leske's house about 8 miles away to play cards until 2:30 a.m.

Later, alone and afraid of the dark, he asked Leske to go back to the cabin with him to keep him company and stay the night.

"You didn't see him down very often. But he was that night," Leske said. "He was pretty blue."

But there were good times at the cabin, too; plenty of them. Nearly every weekend morning, Puckett and Leske met in Puckett's driveway, grabbed fishing poles and tackle boxes and headed down the hill to the dock. From there, they hopped into Puckett's boat and hit the lake's best fishing holes, talking trash while snagging a few weeds and a whole lot of fish.

Leske always brought the doughnuts, loading up on Puckett's favorites -- chocolate. One morning he forgot, and Puckett lit into him good.

"He yelled at me for an hour," Leske said.

But that's the way it was between them. A little fishing. A few serious talks. A whole lot of needling.

If Puckett saw Leske catching more fish, he was quick with excuses.

Sherm, he'd say. I haven't even stepped up to the plate yet. You just wait.

Sometimes, he wanted to know what Leske was using for bait.

"I'd tell him, 'Puck, I showed you everything you know, but I haven't shown you everything I know,' " Leske said. "Oh, that just got him wild."

Once, under cover of night, the two men tied several small pine trees together and anchored them a few hundred feet off shore in hopes of creating a feeding spot for crappies. It worked great. Only trouble was, it was against the law.

Puckett never let Leske forget it. "He brought that up all the time," Leske said. "He'd say, 'I don't know how the mayor of Dresser can be so illegal.' "

But Leske got in a few laughs, too.

Like the night Puckett and his family were roasting marshmallows over a fire pit near the cabin. Puckett heard rustling in the woods and said, What's that?

Probably a bear, Leske said, straight-faced.

"Next thing I know, I look up and Kirby's gone," Leske said. "I mean, he was out of there."

Same thing happened the day Leske took Puckett ice fishing for the first time. No sooner had the two men hauled their gear onto the lake than the ice cracked.

What's that, Sherm? Leske says Puckett asked.

Just the ice expanding, Leske told him.

That's all Puckett needed to hear.

"I had to carry all the gear back," Leske said. "He just left. He said, 'I'm not going out on the ice. You're trying to kill me, that's what you are trying to do!'

"That was the end of his ice fishing right there."

• • •

Puckett got his 1,000th hit on Sept. 15, 1988, making him only the fourth player to reach that milestone in his first five seasons. He ended the season with a .356 average, second best in the major leagues. "I don't set goals," Puckett said. "I'd rather just say nothing, go out every day and let the chips fall where they may."

• • •

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.

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