True enough, Hershey bars are drawn into his mouth with alarming
efficiency, like crisp dollar bills into a change machine. But
can a sugar rush account for his enthusiasm? The way he does the
twist in his swivel chair? How he pops up to greet visitors with
shouts of "Daddy!" and "Poppy!"
Listen to Kirby Puckett, subject of the forthcoming Kirby
Puckett Weekend in Minneapolis, as he gazes out the window of
his Metrodome office onto a street called Kirby Puckett Place.
"I've had everything in this town," says the new executive vice
president of the Minnesota Twins. "Kirby Puckett Pancakes, man,
they were good; just add milk and eggs, and you're ready to go.
I've been on two Wheaties boxes, man. I got to meet Robert
Guillaume--who's that, Benson? And whatshisname, from Lethal
"Danny Glover!" says Puckett. "I know Michael Jordan, man. I
know Kevin Garnett. I got to meet my heroes, Ernie Banks and
Billy Williams, and become their friend."
This is the cast of Puckett Place, which is the anti-Peyton
Place, the un-Melrose Place, a place to meet the impossibly
upbeat. Puckett's is a place of happy endings, where fame is not
a burden but a blessing, and the celebrities' cliche about fans
bothering them during dinner is exposed for what it really is:
Which is to say, no bother at all. "If I'm just sitting in a
restaurant, and I've ordered my food, and I'm just talking?"
says Puckett, far and away the most recognizable resident of
Minnesota. "That's no problem."
What's one more autograph when you've just signed 15,000
baseball cards, to be given to young fans at the Twins-Oakland
A's game this Saturday night?
Self-deprecation is the norm around Puckett Place. He likes to
eat--the 5'9", 223-pound Puckett has always resembled a
reflection in a fun-house mirror--so he happily appeared on
David Letterman's show on May 9 to read the Top 10 Ways to
Mispronounce Kirby Puckett (No. 7: "Turkey Bucket"). When asked
to look forward to the retirement of his uniform number 34 in a
ceremony this Sunday at the Dome, Puckett says, "It's the last
thing I ever thought I'd see." Far from sounding mock-modest,
the words are literally true.
For Puckett is now completely blind in his right eye, which is
discolored and half-hooded by his eyelid. This, after five
surgeries over 3 1/2 months last year in an unsuccessful effort
to arrest the glaucoma that would force him to retire last July
12, at the age of 35.
He still has 20/20 vision in his left eye, and doctors say that
he can expect to retain normal sight in that eye for as long as
he lives. In the meantime he does everything he ever did, with
one exception. "The one thing I can't do," says Puckett, "is
what I loved to do all my life--play baseball."
This was supposed to be the cruel, O. Henry ending to Puckett's
story--the concert pianist who loses his fingers--an occasion
for self-pity and anger. The trouble is, these emotions don't
exist in Puckett. "Who do I get mad at?" he asks, as if
considering the question for the first time. "You tell me, is
there anybody in particular?"
Well, um, God, maybe?
"Listen," Puckett patiently explains. "I've always been a person
who believes things happen for a reason, though we may never
know that reason. So I don't do any soul-searching; I just go
on. I knew that baseball wasn't going to last forever. It was
great living in a fairy tale for 12 years, traveling and meeting
people I would have never met outside the game, and I enjoyed
every minute of it.
"Didn't I always have a smile on my face? I may not have been
the prettiest thing in the world, but I gave all I had. So now
that it's over, I don't have to look in the mirror and say, 'I
wish I had done this.' When I look in the mirror every day I
say, 'Aaaaaaaah.'" Puckett leans back in his swivel chair and
smiles serenely. "'I can't believe that I played.' I just thank
God that I got the chance to live out the dream that I had since
I was five years old.
"Isn't that the way life's supposed to be?" asks Puckett, going
to his office fridge, cracking open a soda and handing it to his
guest before he can ask another impertinent question. "I think I
helped people along the way, and hopefully I'll be able to
continue to help people from this position I'm in now." He
pauses. "I'm 36 years old, man, what am I supposed to do? Just
Well...yes, actually, that's exactly what was expected of him.
People, he sensed last summer, felt sorry for him, hesitating,
for the first time in his memory, to interrupt his dinners or to
shout to him on the street. Puckett finds it remarkable that
anyone could feel sorry for a man who is now in the final year
of a contract that will pay him
$6 million this season, $6 million to occasionally pop into the
office of the last-place Twins and, in his words, "Keep hope
alive in this organization." The irony is that Puckett was
raised in "a place where hope died," as Newsweek once described
the Robert Taylor Homes housing project, nine blocks from old
Comiskey Park in Chicago.
The former centerfielder only permits himself one regret, and it
is a mild one: He would have liked to have played another four
years--he asserts that he could have gotten 180 RBIs last
season, and it isn't clear if he's kidding--and reached 3,000
hits. It would have been a likely milestone. Only Willie Keeler
had more hits in his first 10 years in the big leagues (2,065)
than Puckett (2,040).
People forget that Puckett was a base-stealing, singles-hitting
sprite who batted leadoff in his first three seasons with the
Twins. Only then did he remake himself into a number-three
hitter who would average 98 RBIs a year for the next nine
seasons. "Most guys hitting .300 would not have changed," says
former Minnesota outfielder and three-time American League
batting champ Tony Oliva, who was Puckett's hitting instructor
for many of those years. "But he realized that when he hit the
ball, it was like a bullet. He hit line drives into the outfield
fence: Boom! So he tried hitting for power, and pretty soon he
was smashing windshields in the parking lot."
Ah, yes. During that power epiphany in the spring of 1986,
Puckett hit 10 consecutive balls over the fence in Orlando, and
each time he heard the sound of breaking glass. "Little did I
know," says Puckett, "that they had some kind of auto show going
on next door. A policeman drove his motorcycle onto the field
and told Puckett, "Swing at one more pitch, and I will put you
"If I knew there were cars out there," Puckett says now,
seriously, "I'd have made an adjustment and gone to right."
He could have, too. Puckett sat in the infield of an empty
Milwaukee County Stadium one Saturday morning in 1987 to talk
hitting with Oliva, and went 10 for 11 in the next two games.
With the Twins facing elimination in Game 6 of the 1991 World
Series against the Atlanta Braves, Puckett singled, tripled,
drove in a run with a sacrifice fly, stole a base, scored a run,
robbed Ron Gant of extra bases with a Ringling Brothers catch
against the Metrodome's Plexiglas centerfield wall and hit the
game-winning home run in the 11th inning. In his career he won
two World Series, six Gold Gloves and a batting title. In his
final season, 1995, Puckett hit .314 with 23 home runs and 99
RBIs, winding up with 2,304 career hits. "I think I got better
as I got older," he says.
"Three thousand hits was inevitable," says former first baseman
Kent Hrbek, his teammate of 11 years with the Twins. "He played
every day, never was seriously injured, and was
almost...Ripkenish. But let's not think about what he would have
done. Let's think about what he did. I think it'll be cute to
see him sitting in a boat on a lake for once, instead of sitting
in a dugout."
Because he spent last summer seeking medical solutions to a
disease that proved insoluble, this is Puckett's first free
summer in 24 years. He plans to spend it fishing nearly every
day at his new lake house in northern Minnesota. "He'll clean
out the lake," says Hrbek, who helped teach Puckett to fish in
1984. "Not of fish, but of weeds. He's still green under the
gills out there. He's still got a lot of Chicago in him."
It is this gentle needling that Puckett says he misses most, not
the games themselves, so Hrbek is asked to give his former
teammate some therapeutic razzing for old times' sake. But he
declines. "Why should I give him heat for being an executive?"
says Hrbek, the consummate clubhouse instigator, "when he
doesn't give me heat for being a load?"
In fact, Puckett has been the subject of a running joke around
the Twins offices since spring training, when he agreed to sign
those 15,000 cards. After he finally finished the grim task in
April, he loosed a scream in his office so loud that "people
must have thought I was giving birth to twins," he says. In
essence, of course, he is the father of these Twins, their Ernie
(Mr. Cub) Banks. For that reason--and to help fill the seats for
a hideous team--the franchise is taking this entire weekend to
pay tribute to Puckett,and to a career cut so short, so abruptly.
Puckett remembers getting out of bed on the final day of spring
training in 1996 to find his wife, Tonya, in the laundry room of
their Fort Myers, Fla., condominium. To Kirby, she appeared to
be testifying on Court TV, her hair and clothing visible but her
face obscured behind a fuzzy circle, "like dark clouds," as
Puckett puts it.
"Sweetie," he said, "I think I slept on my eye wrong."
Upon arriving at the ballpark, Puckett told Twins trainer Dick
Martin the same thing, minus the "Sweetie" part, and an eye test
revealed a partial blockage of a blood vessel behind the right
eye. The next day he had the first of his five surgeries on that
eye and was placed on the 15-day disabled list.
"I couldn't play catch," Puckett says. "I tried to shag, and it
seemed like the balls were coming a thousand miles an hour." He
couldn't even toss the ball with his children, six-year-old
Catherine and four-year-old Kirby Jr., so fouled up was his
depth perception. When he would pull into the garage and park
his car--Puckett continues to drive--Tonya would ask him, "What
are you doing?"
"Get out of the car," Tonya would tell him, and Kirby would get
out of the car to see that he was still 10 feet from the back
wall and that the car's rear bumper was still sticking out the
garage door. He would stand there with his mouth agape.
It was absurd. His vision had always been 20/20. "Here I am, a
lifetime .318 hitter, I got 2,300 hits with these eyes, I mean
that's the last thing in the world I would ever think, that
something was wrong with these eyes."
On April 12 of last year an early form of glaucoma was
diagnosed, and it went unalleviated by three laser surgeries
over the next two months. Finally, on July 12, Dr. Bert Glaser
at the Retina Institute of Maryland performed a final,
last-ditch surgery, called a vitrectomy, to try to restore blood
flow to Puckett's retina. "This was the telltale," says Puckett.
"Everyone was nervous. But I was calm, because I was finally
going to know. Will I get back in shape and go at it again, or
just shut it down?"
When Puckett came out of surgery, his wife and two agents were
waiting nervously. Puckett lay on the bed with a patch on his
right eye as Dr. Glaser said softly, "Kirby, I'm sorry to say
this, but, unfortunately, you won't be able to play baseball
anymore." Tonya wept, and the agents teared up, and Puckett
closed his eyes and turned his face toward the ceiling and ...
raised his arms in a gesture of triumph. "Yes," he said. "Thank
you. Thank you, Jesus."
"Within hours, we flew to Minneapolis to announce his
retirement," says Ron Shapiro, one of Puckett's agents. "That's
when Kirby walked into that locker room and said to everyone,
'It may be a cloudy day in my right eye, but there's sunshine in
my left eye.'"
"I was just so happy to know that, O.K., now I can get on with
the rest of my life," says Puckett. "My life in baseball, yes,
it's over. But life isn't over. Life just begins now."
He wants to spend that life, he says, helping others. On this
day, he has a letter on his desk from the mother of a
10-year-old boy with congenital blindness in his right eye.
"Keep hanging in there," Puckett writes him. "Everything's going
to be fine. Fifth grade's going to be harder than fourth grade,
so you have to finish strong and get good grades. Because you
can't see out of one eye, that shouldn't stop you from living
On behalf of Pharmacia & Upjohn, makers of the anti-inflammatory
eyedrops that he applies five times daily--"four drops in the
bad eye, one in the good eye as a preventative measure" is all
he does to treat his eyes--Puckett speaks to groups around the
country, urging them to get screened for glaucoma. His favorite
audience, however, is children. Children are naturally drawn to
him--former Minnesota general manager Andy MacPhail once saw a
small child point to a Twins logo and say "Kirby
Puckett!"--whether or not they know he was a ballplayer.
Puckett thinks that rapport has to do with his fun-to-say name
and his cartoon-like physique. "Kids like me because they're
taller than I am," Puckett says. "I tell 'em people come in all
shapes and sizes, and because a guy is taller than me doesn't
mean he's better than me. Your heart is what matters."
There is a line in the children's book The Little Prince that
may more aptly explain his appeal. "It is only with the heart
that one can see rightly," says one of the book's characters.
"What is essential is invisible to the eye." In which case,
Puckett's vision will be just fine.