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.

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