A Minnesota hero's hard fall from grace

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 31, 2006 - 12:32 PM

He dreamed of finding a new life here after baseball, perhaps starting a business. But a trial, a divorce and ugly rumors changed that.

Late on a gray afternoon in April 2003, the door to courtroom 1053 of the Hennepin County Government Center swung open and Kirby Puckett stepped outside.

With his well-groomed attorneys shielding him from a pack of reporters and photographers, he hustled down the hall. There was no smile, no good-natured banter.

After a nine-day trial in which he was acquitted of groping a woman in a restaurant men's room, the greatest ballplayer ever to wear a Twins uniform was emotionally whipped.

On the verge of tears, he rode down the elevator in silence to meet the media.

Rarely had Puckett struggled to find words. But on this dreary day in Minneapolis, they came hard. As the herd of reporters surrounded him, he spoke softly.

"I just want to go home," he said.

• • •

On Nov. 22, 1989, the Twins signed Puckett to a $9 million, three-year contract, making him baseball's first $3 million a year player. "It's not going to change me," Puckett promised. "I'm still going to go out and play hard every day."

• • •

The slide began in December 2001, four months after the Hall of Fame ceremony. Puckett called his oldest friend, Darryl Hughes in Atlanta, and told him that he and his wife were through. Tonya had caught him talking intimately on the phone with another woman.

D, I think that was it, the last straw, Hughes remembers Puckett saying. She and I got into an argument, and I left.

The couple separated, and Tonya filed for divorce several months later. She had told police that Puckett threatened to kill her when she confronted him about extramarital affairs. No charges were ever filed.

Within weeks, things grew uglier.

A woman who owned a limousine service filed for a restraining order against Tonya Puckett, claiming Tonya had threatened her and accused her of having an affair with Kirby. That case was dismissed, but not before another woman -- Laura Nygren of St. Louis Park -- came forward. Nygren claimed that she had had an 18-year affair with Puckett. She filed for an order for protection against Puckett, saying he had shoved and threatened her.

A judge dismissed the order, but by now, a seamier side to Puckett had come to light. So, too, had word of a secret monetary settlement, involving a former Twins employee, who had accused Puckett of sexual harassment.

In October 2002, Puckett was charged with pulling a woman into a restroom at an Eden Prairie restaurant and grabbing her breast.

He denied wrongdoing and eventually was acquitted, but the damage to his once-stellar reputation in Minnesota and nationwide was devastating. Two months later, he and the Twins parted ways.

Jerry Bell, a Twins executive, said in a recent interview that the timing was a coincidence. The Twins and Puckett couldn't reach agreement on what job he should do or how much he should get paid, Bell said.

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