Kirby says goodbye

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 27, 1998 - 10:00 PM

The news conference called to announce Kirby Puckett's retirement from baseball didn't start on time. His teammates wouldn't let it. While a crowd waited Friday in the Halsey Hall Room at the Metrodome, the most-popular athlete in Minnesota history strolled in with his wife. Tonya Puckett was crying; her husband wore sunglasses and his white Twins jersey. A gauze patch covered his right eye.

Everything and seemingly everybody was in place, but nobody spoke until his teammates filed in, silently, wearing the mien of mourners. In an unprecedented and fitting tribute to him, they filled the first three rows of seats and became anguished witnesses to his farewell soliloquy.

"It's the last time you're going to see Kirby Puckett in a Twins uniform," the 35-year-old Puckett said. "I want to tell you all that I love you all so much."

His words were carried across Minnesota, just as his exploits so often were.

Thousands of people -fans of baseball and fans of no baseball players other than Kirby Puckett -stopped what they were doing at 5: 30 p.m. to memorize the moment when Puckett called it quits.

Puckett's last day in Twins uniform No. 34, like his career, was dramatic and astonishing.

Friday morning, he underwent a vitrectomy, a surgical procedure designed to remove the blood that obscured his right retina. Dr. Bert Glaser of the Retinal Institute of Maryland, who performed the procedure in Baltimore, found that Puckett's retina, no longer being nourished by blood, had become swollen, a sign that the loss of sight was irreversible.

Puckett's career was over. He, Glaser and his agents flew back to the Twin Cities. The superstar was greeted at the airport by Twins owner Carl Pohlad; the two embraced and wept.

'Pride and integrity'

By the time Puckett arrived at the Metrodome, he had put on what a baseball player would call his game face. Instead of crying, he gave a speech that elicited laughs, although teammates such as Paul Molitor, sitting in the front row, could not help but weep.

"Baseball's been a great part of my life," Puckett said. "But now it's time for me to close this chapter of this book in baseball and go on with Part 2 of my life. Kirby Puckett's going to be all right. Don't worry about me.

"I'll show up and I'll have a smile on my face. The only thing I won't have is this uniform on. But you guys can have the memories of what I did when I did have it on. And I want my young teammates to know right now that when you put this uniform on, you play with pride and integrity, like Kent Hrbek and Molly and Knobby [Chuck Knoblauch], and all you guys play with it.

"Just don't take it for granted, because tomorrow is not promised to any of us."

Puckett's career seemed replete with tomorrows until the morning of March 28. The day before, Puckett had gone 2-for-3 in a spring training game against Atlanta, raising his spring training average to .344. He even got a hit against Greg Maddux, the game's best pitcher, and from second base yelled at Maddux -"Hey, Picasso -how you doing?"

The next morning, he woke up and realized he couldn't see Tonya, who was sitting next to him. More than three months and three laser surgeries later, Puckett underwent the procedure that revealed the fate of his career.

Twins officials had hoped that he would be able to play if his vision improved to 20/40. Today, the vision in his right eye is 20/400.

"Actually, I was glad to find out the result," Puckett said. "I was tired of being in limbo."

Puckett visited Glaser an average of twice a month. "I learned a lot of life lessons, dealing with Kirby Puckett," Glaser said. "He was phenomenal. He was like a rock."

Glaser said "central retinal vein occlusion" -a blockage of the central blood vessels serving the right retina -caused Puckett's vision loss. "At this stage, basically, the retina will not recover," he said.

Glaser performed three laser surgeries on Puckett, the second of which caused hemorrhaging, and the third of which was performed to stem the bleeding. Glaser had expressed cautious optimism about Puckett's improvement until the past two weeks, when he realized that retina was not improving.

In March, Glaser had diagnosed an early form of glaucoma. He repeated Friday that Puckett also has glaucoma in his left eye. "But that seems to be under control -it shouldn't affect his vision," the doctor said.

Puckett never considered trying to hit with his current vision, noting that his 1995 season ended when he was hit in the head by a pitch from his friend, Dennis Martinez, a Cleveland pitcher who attended the news conference.

"I'd be a damn fool," Puckett said. "I got hit in the eye with two good eyes last year. I had 20/20 in both eyes last year, and I got hit, and I'm going to come back? I don't think so. I'm smarter than that."

Tough on Kelly

At times, Puckett seemed to have the only dry eyes in the room. Twins manager Tom Kelly was forced to keep his speech short. Noting that as a third base coach or manager he saw every one of Puckett's 7,244 career at-bats, Kelly said, "How lucky am I? Thanks."

Puckett will become the fifth Twins player to have his number retired, along with Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Tony Oliva and Kent Hrbek. Puckett was the only player remaining on the Twins roster who played on both of the franchise's World Series champions, in '87 and '91.

Of all the statistics that framed his greatness, one that should ensure his enshrinement in baseball's Hall of Fame is this: No player in the 20th century amassed more hits in his first 10 full seasons. Puckett had 2,040 hits from May 8, 1984, through May 8, 1994. In baseball history, only Wee Willie Keeler, who played before the turn of the century, had more (2,065.)

But what Puckett meant to the Twins transcended statistics, just as his fire-hydrant-shaped body often crested the Metrodome's centerfield fence. He overcame the limits of his short, squat body, and of his upbringing in the projects on Chicago's South Side, to demonstrate the joys that baseball can bring a player and a community.

Former Twins general manager Andy MacPhail became one of the most respected people in baseball largely because Puckett won him two World Series.

MacPhail, now the CEO of the Chicago Cubs, interrupted his viewing of a Cubs game on Friday afternoon to say, "If he had played in New York, there would be a 5-9 statue of him in Times Square."

MacPhail added: "It's difficult for people to understand how important he was, not only to the Minnesota Twins but to baseball. I hope for the sake of the game he will choose to stay involved in baseball in some capacity."

Tonya has an idea

Puckett half-jokingly suggested him might become a broadcaster, telling former teammate and current announcer Bert Blyleven -"Watch out -I'm coming for your job."

Tonya Puckett suggested a different vocation. "I think he ought to be the next commissioner," she said. "He's one of the best things that ever happened to baseball, and I think he'll continue to work in baseball."

Her husband demurred: "I'm just going to go fishing with Hrbie."

Hrbek, another stalwart on the Twins' championship teams, retired in 1994. He sat a few feet away from his pal on Friday.

"I just got through telling Hrbie that the last time I was in here, he was doing this," Puckett said. "Hrbek said this wasn't an easy room -and he's right.

"But for me, a kid growing up in Chicago and coming out of a bad neighborhood, well, people never thought I'd do anything, and here I am sitting in front of you guys, and my only regret I have about this game is I could have done so much better if I could have played.

"But that's 20/20."

If Puckett could see that well, he'd be steaming toward 3,000 hits, instead of stuck for eternity on 2,304. Yet on his last day in uniform, he chose to flash his famous smile and make people laugh, before turning serious.

"I want to say to the little kids who prayed for me, that just because I can't see doesn't mean that God doesn't answer prayers," he said. "He answers prayers."

After he finished, his teammates filed to the front of the room, and Puckett pulled each one close for a hug and a few whispered words. Many of his teammates left in tears; Puckett waved and shook hands and said goodbye as he went out the revolving door and into "Part 2" of his life.

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