FORT MYERS, FLA. - Kirby Puckett, a baseball Hall of Famer and the driving force behind the Twins' two World Series titles, was in critical condition and fighting for life early this morning after he suffered a stroke early Sunday at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Puckett was first rushed to Scottsdale Memorial Hospital, then airlifted to Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn where he was in surgery for most of the afternoon, said Twins President Dave St. Peter. Puckett was transferred after the surgery to St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, St. Peter said.
Two people familiar with Puckett's condition said he suffered bleeding in the brain and surgery was required to drain blood and relieve pressure.
At 1:30 a.m. today, the Associated Press reported that a nursing supervisor at St. Joseph's, who declined to give her full name, said Puckett was in critical condition.
She did not provide additional details.
"It's distressing news," said former Twins manager Tom Kelly, who is working with the team at its spring training camp. "We had a doctor come in and try to explain to us probably what's going to happen. The last thing he said was that if he has good luck, things will hopefully work out. So let's hope that he has good luck."
Puckett, 44, was selected to 10 American League All-Star teams during his 12 major league seasons. He also won six Gold Gloves for his defensive prowess in the outfield and was a career .318 hitter -- well above baseball's standard of excellence of .300. Puckett's career ended prematurely in 1996 because of irreversible damage to his right eye as a result of glaucoma. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001 -- baseball's ultimate honor.
But Puckett's personal life had taken a downward turn since that honor. He virtually disappeared from public view in 2002 after his ex-wife, Tonya, alleged that he abused her and threatened to kill her. In 2003, he was acquitted of three charges stemming from an alleged sexual assault of a woman at an Eden Prairie restaurant.
Puckett, who played at around 210 pounds, has gained considerable weight since he retired, and many friends in and outside of the organization have worried that he was headed for trouble with his health.
"We were all concerned," said Jacque Jones, the former Twins outfielder now with the Cubs, who has spent time with Puckett recently. "But a man is going to be a man, and a woman is going to be a woman. You can't change what they do unless they want to change. Puck enjoyed life, he enjoyed the size he was. That's who he was."
The news hit the Twins clubhouse hard Sunday morning.
Outfielder Torii Hunter, who remains close to Puckett, took himself out the lineup for Sunday's exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox at Hammond Stadium, saying he "couldn't focus on anything."
Hunter left the ballpark and spent the rest of the day getting updates on Puckett's condition.
"I learned about this game from him," Hunter said. "He's a guy I look to like he's an older brother. I've come up in this game just by watching what Kirby Puckett is all about."
Manager Ron Gardenhire looked stunned for most of the day as he and Twins coaches discussed Puckett's condition.
"Our thoughts and our prayers are turned towards Puck in Arizona," Gardenhire said. "We all heard about this before lunch and that pretty much takes away from anything you do at a ballpark. We did the best we could do today and the game was whatever ... it was a game."
When asked to describe Puckett's stature within the organization, Gardenhire paused, seemingly to compose himself, before saying, "Not right now."
Some of Puckett's friends and former teammates either went to the hospital or are traveling to Arizona to be with him.
Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew and former teammate Ron Washington spent most of the day at the hospital. They were later joined by Eddie Guardado, and Jones planned to arrive later. Washington (a coach with the Oakland Athletics), Guardado (a Seattle Mariners relief pitcher) and Jones all train in Arizona. Killebrew was seen leaving the hospital with a group of players Sunday evening.
"He's a big part of the reason why I play this game the way I play it," Jones said. "He's a great person. We all learned from him -- me, Torii, Matt Lawton, Eddie, LaTroy [Hawkins] -- Puck tutored us all.
"It'd be tough to meet a guy that's any better than him. He's was always happy-go-lucky, even when he came down with glaucoma. That was one of the best speeches I ever heard, telling people don't feel sorry for him, that he enjoyed the game, enjoyed every minute of it. That's why he played every game like it was his last, because you never know when that day is going to come."
Twins radio broadcaster Dan Gladden, one of Puckett's closest friends and a teammate from 1987 to '91, intended to fly from Fort Myers to Arizona Sunday evening. Hunter said he was also making plans to fly to Arizona.
The last time some people in the organization saw Puckett was in November during Killebrew's charity golf tournament in Arizona.
"He was trying to do better," Gardenhire said. "... It was fun to see him."
Face of the team
Puckett hit one of the most memorable home runs in World Series history, when his shot in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series forced Game 7 against Atlanta. The Twins won the Series, their second in five years. Puckett remains an iconic figure with the club, although he has continued to keep a low profile and moved to the Phoenix area after his acquittal on the sexual assault charges in 2003. He was planning to be married again in June; he has two children by his first marriage with Tonya.
Puckett was employed as a Twins vice president from 1996 to 2002 before parting ways. This year, the team tried unsuccessfully to get him to return to spring training as a special instructor, and it still hopes to get him to return to the organization in some capacity one day.
"The Twins and Kirby Puckett are synonymous," St. Peter said. "He's a giant. In many ways he's the signature element of our franchise. In some ways I think he's one of those lovable characters, both on and off the field, that really brought a lot of people to the game. That infectious smile and the way he played the game.
"I tell people that the way I define Kirby Puckett's popularity is by the thousands and thousands of dogs and cats named after him throughout the Upper Midwest. Kirby and I always laughed about that. We're all praying for him."