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Continued: Finding a family, losing his health

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW , Star Tribune
  • Last update: October 30, 2006 - 10:44 PM

As Chmurzynski began to apologize, Puckett threw back his head and let out that high-rolling giggle.

Aw, he bellowed. I'm just messin' with ya, man.

• • •

On Sept. 28, 1995, a first-inning pitch from Cleveland's Dennis Martinez exploded into the left side of Puckett's face, breaking his jaw, loosening two teeth and lacerating his mouth. "I felt so bad, I almost took myself out of the game," Martinez said. "It was the worst feeling in my life, when I saw him go down, because the ball never hit his helmet. It hit him right in the face." Puckett staggered. He fell to the dirt near home plate at the Metrodome, then was taken to the hospital. It was his last professional game.

• • •

While Puckett was enjoying the good life in Scottsdale, friends in Minnesota were becoming increasingly concerned about his health. Just a few weeks before, while sitting in a Minneapolis hotel room after the Trent Tucker Celebrity Golf Tournament, Dwayne Harris had noticed Puckett sweating heavily while lacing up his shoes.

Mike Casey noticed it, too. He says he told Harris later: We've got to take some action here. We've got to get into his head.

But how?

Trying to get Puckett to eat right and stay in shape had been a problem even in his playing days. Back then, though, he had the routine of a baseball season to keep himself fit.

Now, a decade removed from his last game, Puckett had no incentive to lose weight, no real structure in his life at all. With plenty of time and money and few obligations, he was free to indulge whatever cravings he had. And he looked nothing like the athlete he had been.

Once listed on his rookie card as 5-8, 178 pounds, his friends estimated he was more than 250 pounds in August 2001 when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. By the time of the Tucker golf tournament in September 2005, friends figured he was pushing 310 pounds -- or more.

His arms and legs were still as powerful and thick as tree trunks, but his stomach was round and his face was puffy. His bad right eye, the one blinded by glaucoma, was folded nearly shut.

A health club manager, Harris was battling high blood pressure himself, and he knew that Puckett's heart and other organs must be working overtime to compensate for the weight. What's more, he knew that heart problems ran in Puckett's family.

Puckett's father, William, had died of a heart attack when Kirby was in college. His mother, Catherine, died in 1989 of a heart-related ailment at 65.

Puckett had often told friends and relatives that he wouldn't live past 50. To Harris, it was almost as though Puckett was doing his best to make sure that he didn't.

Some wondered whether his weight gain had been caused by depression after being forced to quit the game in his prime.

Tonya Puckett hinted at it in an interview with the St. Paul Pioneer Press in December 2002.

"I want Kirby to be OK," she said. "I want him to get his life together. I really worry about him a lot. He breathes very heavy. He's put on weight. ... I know he's depressed. If he gets his mind together, he'll get together in all the other areas."

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