Finding a family, losing his health

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

As he enjoyed his new life and family in sunny Arizona, friends worried about his weight, his eating habits and the lack of structure in his days.

A year after buying the Arizona house, Kirby Puckett was in the mood to celebrate. His girlfriend, Jodi Olson, was turning 36 that October weekend in 2005, and most of her family had flown down to Scottsdale for the party.

Puckett had planned a surprise. As Olson sat in her swimsuit, a towel wrapped around her waist, the guests gathered around her at the poolside bar.

He dropped to his knee. Grinning widely, he slid a diamond ring onto her finger.

The couple embraced, and relatives applauded and whooped and raised their glasses in a toast.

Although Puckett had seen other women after his divorce, Olson, a single mother of an 8-year-old boy, had been his steady.

Friends said Puckett clearly considered her special.

"Our relationship was like a switch -- we clicked right away," Olson said recently. "He's extremely outgoing. I'm very shy. We brought a lot out in each other."

She wasn't, however, a baseball fan.

While accompanying Puckett on a trip to Cooperstown for the 2003 Hall of Fame ceremony, she asked him if Babe Ruth was going to be there.

To which she says Puckett replied: Babe, I tell you what. If Babe Ruth is there, we're on the first plane out of there.

On that October day in 2005 as the birthday and engagement party moved into high gear, guests sipped cocktails and splashed in the pool.

Inside the house, Dave Chmurzynski, who was catering the party, was scrambling to save face. He'd run out of tomatoes and had to race to the market to buy more. Now there was no room on the kitchen island to slice them up.

Puckett grandly cleared the counter with a wide sweep of his forearm. There you go, he said.

He grinned, but Chmurzynski was embarrassed.

The next morning, when Chmurzynski returned to pick up his margarita machine, he found the former ballplayer soaking in the pool.

Hey, Dave, we ran out of food, he says Puckett hollered.

You've got to be kidding, Chmurzynski said. No way.

We ran out of food, Dave, Puckett said again. We ran out of food.

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."

But friends say the problem was more simple -- he just loved to eat.

Buffalo wings, hamburgers, ice cream and Pepsi were daily staples.

He stocked his office at the Metrodome with soda and snacks, telling visitors that everything in the place was fat free. It's full of fat, Puckett would joke, and it's all free.

On the mornings Puckett and his friend Sherm Leske fished, they always stopped for breakfast afterward. Leske would order eggs and toast, but Puckett always ordered two double cheeseburgers, a cola and dessert.

"I'd say, 'Kirby, you eat to live, you don't live to eat,' " Leske said. "And he just looked at me and gave me that [silly] grin."

Once Puckett called his divorce attorney, Bob Zalk, from a McDonald's drive-thru. "He's ordering all this food," Zalk said. "Whatever he ordered, he ordered two of them.

"I ask him, 'Who is all there with you?' And he says, 'Nobody. It's all mine.' "

• • •

On July 12, 1996, Puckett announced his retirement. "Baseball's been a great part of my life," he said. "But now it's time for me to close this chapter of this book in baseball and go on with part two of my life. Kirby Puckett's going to be all right. Don't worry about me."

• • •

Friends say that they tried over the years to confront Puckett about his weight, but that they never had much success.

"I'd be as tactful as I could possibly be," Harris said. "How do you say to someone, 'I don't want you dying on me?' "

Puckett's longtime friend Darryl Hughes told him several times: "You can't continue like this."

When the warnings didn't work, Hughes said, he bought Puckett a subscription to a health magazine "to try and penetrate his psyche."

In 2004, Harris got Puckett a health club membership in hopes of encouraging him to exercise. On Puckett's first day in the gym, he hit the weights hard.

The next day, he called Harris at 7 a.m. to tell him that he was so sore from the workout that he couldn't even summon the strength to pop a few aspirin to relieve the pain.

You know all that stuff in my locker? Harris said Puckett told him. Give it all to charity. Because I'm not coming back.

"He didn't like to work out to work out," his friend Steve Stinski said. "There had to be a game involved. He needed a ball. ... He needed competition."

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

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