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.

But Puckett's friends say he sensed there was more to it than that.

The messy divorce and assault charges were bad PR for a franchise trying to win public support for a new stadium. Puckett told his friends that the Twins deliberately backed away.

On a cold, gray morning in December 2002, Puckett cleaned out his Metrodome office and said goodbye to the only team he had ever known. He and his friend Dwayne Harris boxed up his bobbleheads, baseballs and photographs, pausing to remember the stories behind the memorabilia.

"As he looked at things, I could see him reminiscing," Harris said. "We would talk about a few things, and then it would go in the box."

As they worked, other Twins employees kept their distance.

There was some tension, and "it was a hard day," Harris said. "He just wanted to get out of there. ... He said 'I just can't believe they don't want me anymore.' "

• • •

Just before Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, with the Twins down three games to two, Puckett addressed his teammates. "Boys, I have an announcement to make. You all seem quiet. Are you nervous about something? Well, don't worry. All you have to do tonight is jump on my back. I'll carry you." And he did -- with a spectacular catch in the third inning, and an 11th-inning, game-winning home run.

• • •

After his acquittal, Puckett told friends that it felt as though Minnesota had turned on him. He felt that the Twins, too, had abandoned him; nobody from the front office had attended his trial.

He told his friends that he would never go back to the Dome.

Days later, though, came the only scenario that could change his mind -- the induction of announcer Bob Casey into the Twins' Hall of Fame.

Casey had befriended Puckett his first week in the big leagues. He'd helped make Puckett a household name by bellowing "Kirrrr-beeee Puckett!" every time No. 34 stepped into the batter's box at the Dome. And he was the man Puckett had picked to introduce him at his 2001 Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown, N.Y.

So when Casey's son Mike asked Puckett if he would return the favor at his father's induction, Puckett agreed. Absolutely, Mike Casey says Puckett told him. I'll do anything for Pops.

On May 31, 2003, Puckett went back to the Dome one more time. Dressed in a snazzy black suit, he shook a few hands and exchanged a few greetings and got the loudest ovation of anyone in the Twins family.

Then he stepped to the microphone. He told the story of how Casey bought him dinner and got him a hotel room his first night in the Twin Cities.

"He ... treated me like I was family," Puckett told the fans.

Then he walked off the field and headed deep into the stadium to watch the Twins play Seattle from the privacy of a corporate suite.

Friends say it was the last time he set foot inside the Metrodome.

Later that summer, the Twins tried to revive discussions about a new role and contract. But by then, Puckett was bitter.

"He said, 'Look at them. All of a sudden they want Puck back. All of a sudden everything has been cleared. All of a sudden, they want to rekindle the relationship,' " Harris said. "...He took that as a slap in the face."

• • •

On July 13, 1993, in his eighth consecutive All-Star Game, Puckett was named most valuable player. He left the field in Baltimore to the sound of his favorite song: "What A Wonderful World," sung by Louis Armstrong.

• • •

Puckett had talked about finding a new life outside of baseball. He dreamed of starting a business -- something modest, nothing fancy.

Maybe a car wash. Or a martini bar. Or maybe he could buy the McDonald's restaurant in St. Croix Falls, over by his cabin. He ate there often enough. Why not own the place? His pal Sherm Leske could manage it, and Puckett could come in on Saturdays to sign autographs and promote "Kirby Burgers."

But by late 2003, he had chucked the daydreams for a more quiet life.

He had a new girlfriend, a single mom named Jodi Olson whom he'd met while he was still with Tonya. Even after the divorce, friends said he was careful about being seen in public with her. He wanted to shield her from publicity, and he also was still embarrassed by the trial and aftermath.

So instead of attending high-profile events such as Timberwolves games, he and Olson went up to the cabin. Or they got together with her family to play cards or Yahtzee and down a few pizzas or cocktails.

Some nights, they headed to the Savoy Inn on St. Paul's East Side and grabbed a pizza -- Puckett favored sausage and cheese. Other nights, they dined on steaks at Mancini's Char House, where Puckett would sometimes grab the microphone and sing along with the lounge band.

On warm weekends, they gathered at Puckett's cabin to swim, barbecue and sing karaoke at the downstairs bar he called "Puck's on the Lake." When one weekend ended, he started working on Olson's relatives right away to persuade them to come up again the next week.

"He'd call [my wife] and say, 'You coming up? Cory says it's up to you,' " said Jodi's brother, Cory Olson. "If you didn't call him, he'd say, 'Where's the love? Where's the love?'

"He'd bother you all week until you finally gave in."

• • •

With a home run against Kansas City on June 26, 1994, Puckett became the Twins' all-time leader in hits, breaking Rod Carew's record of 2,085. "I'm the same old Kirby," he said. "A lot older and a lot slower, but still hacking."

• • •

As the months passed, Puckett's ties to Tonya and the kids were becoming more tenuous. While the bitter divorce had made dealings with Tonya difficult, his relationship with his children, Catherine and Kirby Jr., had changed, too.

His friends noticed that Puckett was with his children less and less. On poker nights they watched as Puckett called his kids again and again, often leaving voice mail messages to tell them he loved them.

"The thing that hurt him most wasn't the [breakup]," said longtime friend and teammate Ron Washington. "The thing that hurt him more than that was he wasn't seeing his kids" as often as he had before.

Adding to his frustration was the constant public scrutiny of his health and weight.

Without a job, his life lacked structure. And with those big appetites of his, he was eating more, maybe drinking more, getting bigger by the month. His friends were worried.

B. Todd Jones, a former U.S. Attorney who represented Puckett at his trial, sensed Puckett was embarrassed by his appearance. "He wasn't taking care of himself," Jones said.

His close friend Hughes said Puckett loved to party, entertain and "enjoy himself. If there was a day he was going to eat and drink and be merry, he was going to eat and drink and be merry as much as humanly possible."

By late 2003, several close friends, including former Twins teammate Dan Gladden, tried to persuade Puckett to move south. Get away, they told him. Start over.

Puckett had talked about moving for years, but he had always said he wouldn't go until Kirby Jr. graduated from high school.

But now, friends say, Minnesota had become a cold and callous place. He needed distance.

Olson remembers that on a bitterly cold morning in early 2004, while watching the weather forecast on TV, Puckett turned to her and said, That's it, babe. We're moving.

That October, Puckett and Olson hopped a plane to Arizona. They walked through 11 houses, but quickly picked a spacious, single-story home on Shangri La Road in Scottsdale. It had a large back yard, a pool, a hot tub and a putting green. To the southwest was Phoenix. To the northeast were the mountains. All around them was blue sky and that dry desert heat.

Puckett bought the house for $1.3 million in cash one month later.

Out in the desert, hundreds of miles from the bitter windchill and painful memories of the Twin Cities, Kirby Puckett had found a new home.

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

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Minnesota 35 FINAL
Miami 37
Baltimore 13 FINAL
Houston 25
Detroit 20 FINAL
Chicago 14
Cleveland 13 FINAL
Carolina 17
Atlanta 30 FINAL
New Orleans 14
Green Bay 20 FINAL
Tampa Bay 3
Kansas City 12 FINAL
Pittsburgh 20
New England 17 FINAL
NY Jets 16
NY Giants 37 FINAL
St. Louis 27
Buffalo 24 FINAL
Oakland 26
Indianapolis 7 FINAL
Dallas 42
Seattle 35 FINAL
Arizona 6
Denver 7:30 PM
Cincinnati
New York 108 FINAL
Toronto 118
Memphis 91 FINAL
Cleveland 105
Boston 84 FINAL
Miami 100
Detroit 105 FINAL
Brooklyn 110
LA Lakers 101 FINAL
Sacramento 108
Philadelphia 96 FINAL
Orlando 88
Phoenix 104 FINAL
Washington 92
Indiana 100 FINAL
Minnesota 96
New Orleans 101 FINAL
Oklahoma City 99
Colorado 2 FINAL(SO)
Detroit 1
Dallas 6 FINAL(SO)
Edmonton 5
Buffalo 3 FINAL(OT)
Boston 4
Carolina 0 FINAL
NY Rangers 1
Toronto 0 FINAL
Chicago 4
Philadelphia 4 FINAL(OT)
Winnipeg 3
Harvard 27 FINAL
Virginia 76
Maine 69 FINAL
Army 72
Ferris State 82 FINAL
Bowling Green 68
San Francisco 65 FINAL
Cleveland State 69
Oregon State 52 FINAL
Quinnipiac 60
Coastal Carolina 72 FINAL
Central Arkansas 55
Holy Cross 48 FINAL
Canisius 67
Southern Miss 55 FINAL
Georgia State 68
Western Carolina 66 FINAL
UNC-Asheville 62
Creighton 58 FINAL
North Texas 62
Maryland 73 FINAL
Oklahoma State 64
Cornell 61 FINAL
Radford 74
Vermont 55 FINAL
Saint Louis 58
Loyola-Maryland 52 FINAL
Stony Brook 67
Reinhardt 72 FINAL
Winthrop 100
Ark-Little Rock 46 FINAL
Green Bay 66
TX-Pan American 72 FINAL
Nebraska Omaha 77
Alabama State 63 FINAL
Evansville 81
FIU 69 FINAL
Hartford 82
Goshen 55 FINAL
Valparaiso 82
Bryant 48 FINAL
Denver 46
Austin Peay 63 FINAL
Lipscomb 69
Tennessee St 47 FINAL
Middle Tennessee 65
South Dakota 67 FINAL
Montana 62
ULM 50 FINAL
Samford 64
Coker 52 FINAL
South Carolina 78
USC 75 FINAL
Boston College 71
Northern Ariz 66 FINAL
Hampton 75
SD Christian 61 FINAL
San Diego 71
UC Irvine 55 FINAL
Bradley 47
Troy 65 FINAL
Nicholls 64
Seton Hall 47 FINAL
Georgia 65
Appalachian St 59 FINAL
Alabama 60
North Dakota St 52 FINAL
Kent State 53
San Jose St 53 FINAL
Washington St 82
Alcorn State 45 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 78
Sacramento St 47 FINAL
Seattle 66
Nevada 3 FINAL
Louisiana 16
Utah State 21 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 6
(23) Utah 45 FINAL
Colorado State 10
Western Mich 24 FINAL
Air Force 38
South Alabama 28 FINAL
Bowling Green 33
BYU 1:00 PM
Memphis
Marshall 12/23/14 5:00 PM
Northern Ill
Navy 12/23/14 8:30 PM
San Diego St
Central Mich 12/24/14 11:00 AM
Western Ky
Fresno State 12/24/14 7:00 PM
Rice
Illinois 12/26/14 12:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
Rutgers 12/26/14 3:30 PM
North Carolina
NC State 12/26/14 7:00 PM
UCF
Cincinnati 12/27/14 12:00 PM
Virginia Tech
Duke 12/27/14 1:10 PM
(15) Arizona State
Miami-Florida 12/27/14 3:00 PM
So Carolina
Boston College 12/27/14 3:30 PM
Penn State
(25) Nebraska 12/27/14 7:00 PM
(24) USC
Cal-Irvine 55 FINAL
Denver 63
St Marys-CA 52 FINAL
George Washington 70
TX-San Antonio 49 FINAL
Nicholls 57
Portland State 71 FINAL
Columbia 66
Tenn Tech 62 FINAL
Morgan State 56
SMU 43 FINAL
Auburn 56
Quinnipiac 70 FINAL
Hartford 58
Hofstra 75 FINAL
Boston College 61
Eastern Washington 55 FINAL
Georgia Southern 42
Liberty 44 FINAL
(1) South Carolina 84
Fairleigh Dickinson 74 FINAL
Brown 79
Buffalo 73 FINAL
Long Island 79
Bucknell 74 FINAL
Mount St Marys 49
Stony Brook 70 FINAL
Wagner 76
FIU 83 FINAL
Wofford 75
Duquesne 56 FINAL
Providence 67
Maine 54 FINAL
William & Mary 51
Alabama State 43 FINAL
Samford 56
TX-Pan American 43 FINAL
VA Commonwealth 64
South Dakota St 64 FINAL
Marist 82
Saint Josephs 50 FINAL
(5) Notre Dame 64
Radford 60 FINAL
Virginia Tech 73
(3) Texas 67 FINAL
(4) Texas A&M 65
Rhode Island 60 FINAL
Bryant 56
South Florida 90 FINAL
Penn State 87
Sam Houston St 55 FINAL
TCU 79
Evansville 50 FINAL
IUPUI 62
(14) Maryland 110 FINAL
Coppin State 51
Mercer 59 FINAL
Coll of Charleston 72
NC A&T 43 FINAL
Chattanooga 58
Princeton 84 FINAL
Monmouth 53
Eastern Illinois 69 FINAL
Lehigh 72
Rider 67 FINAL
Binghamton 72
SC State 57 FINAL
Clemson 66
Fairfield 63 FINAL
Iowa State 76
Richmond 70 FINAL
Eastern Kentucky 56
Cleveland State 80 FINAL
Morehead St 72
Kent State 62 FINAL
Colgate 61
South Alabama 43 FINAL
UAB 73
Saint Peters 35 FINAL
Navy 71
Youngstown St 52 FINAL
Pittsburgh 78
NJIT 50 FINAL
Lafayette 66
Davidson 51 FINAL
Charlotte 86
Indiana State 73 FINAL
St Johns 67
Southern U 49 FINAL
Florida 78
Wright State 46 FINAL
Purdue 70
(19) Oklahoma St 66 FINAL
USC 62
Houston 54 FINAL
Texas Tech 60
Ark-Little Rock 66 FINAL
Tulsa 59
Dayton 71 FINAL
Vanderbilt 67
Northern Ariz 37 FINAL
New Mexico 56
UNC-Asheville 60 FINAL
USC Upstate 67
North Dakota 81 FINAL
South Dakota 86
Western Ill 57 FINAL
Marquette 65
Elon 67 FINAL
(6) North Carolina 85
Ball State 59 FINAL
Western Ky 84
(8) Kentucky 68 FINAL
(13) Duke 89
New Orleans 58 FINAL
Alabama 87
Chicago State 47 FINAL
Milwaukee 69
Bowling Green 61 FINAL
Bradley 47
Ill-Springfield 56 FINAL
SE Missouri St 73
Northern Ill 42 FINAL
Northern Iowa 51
(23) Iowa 100 FINAL
Drake 98
Central Michigan 64 FINAL
Minnesota 67
Western Carolina 45 FINAL
North Florida 62
Wyoming 71 FINAL
Colorado 76
Portland 58 FINAL
Boise State 94
Cal Poly 63 FINAL
Colorado State 65
No Dakota State 54 FINAL
Grand Canyon 69
Albany 71 FINAL
Cal State Fullerton 49
Oklahoma 64 FINAL
Arkansas 71
Idaho State 63 FINAL
Seattle 55
(18) Michigan State 89 FINAL
(19) Syracuse 76
Northwestern 75 FINAL
Arizona State 88
TX-Arlington 46 FINAL
North Texas 38
Fresno State 68 FINAL
Oregon 59
St Francis-PA 75 FINAL
Coastal Carolina 72
UNLV 71 FINAL
CS-Bakersfield 74
UCLA 50 FINAL
(2) Connecticut 86
(10) Louisville 70 FINAL
(24) California 57
Howard 53 FINAL
Virginia 74
Miami-Ohio 42 FINAL
(21) Miss State 68
Illinois-Chicago 55 FINAL
Old Dominion 61

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Grade the Vikings offense

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close