End of the Fairy Tale

March 20, 2006
March 20, 2006

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March 20, 2006

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End of the Fairy Tale

Kirby Puckettonce told me he could die happy in a fishing boat. "I don't go icefishing," said the former Twins centerfielder, who had otherwise embracedMinnesota life. "I ain't gonna die on no ice. If I'm gonna die on water,I'm gonna die where it's warm."

This is an article from the March 20, 2006 issue

I don't knowwhich is more heartbreaking: that Puckett died last week at age 45 or that he'dbeen living in self-exile in the Arizona desert, about as far as a U.S. citizencan be--physically and spiritually--from the Land of Lakes that he loved.

In his 12 seasonswith the Twins, the Chicago native became the most revered Minnesotan that everwas. "I've had everything in this town named after me, from a street topancakes," he said in his office at 34 Kirby Puckett Place in the Metrodomein 1997, nine months after glaucoma forced him to retire in his late prime."I've been on a Wheaties box several times," he said, one Minnesotaicon invoking another. "I've got no complaints, man," said Puckett, bythen blind in his right eye. "I got to live a fairy-tale life for 13years."

That fairy talewas bookended by bleakness. Puckett and his nine siblings were raisedtwo-to-a-twin-bed just nine blocks from Comiskey Park, in a housing projectNewsweek described as "a place where hope died," an epithet Puckettoften recited.

Like a lot ofsuccessful children whose parents died young, Puckett linked the years of theirpassings to what they lived to see him accomplish. "My dad died in 1980,when I went to college," he said. "My mom died in '89, when I won thebatting title." He hit .339 that year, a figure I recite from memory.

I was in highschool when he made his 4-for-5 debut with the Twins in Anaheim. When Puckettwent 10 for 11 against the Brewers over a Saturday and Sunday in Milwaukee in'87, I was a college student whiling away a weekend in the County Stadiumbleachers.

In '92, as asportswriter, I flew with Puckett from the All-Star Game in San Diego andwatched him wait forlornly at a baggage carousel in Minneapolis as Minnesotansbuzzed in disbelief that Kirby Freaking Puckett was retrieving his own bags."I pick my luggage off the baggage claim like anyone else," he feltcompelled to say, noting that his brother Spencer, a Delta skycap, had beenschlepping Samsonites at O'Hare for a quarter century.

His fame wasextraordinarily intense in Minnesota and its colonies, such as the Twins'spring training complex in Florida, where a motorcycle cop once rode into thestadium during BP and said gravely, "Mr. Puckett, if you take one moreswing, I'm going to have to arrest you." Puckett had broken severalwindshields in the parking lot beyond the leftfield wall, where an auto showwas being held. "If I'd known that," Puckett later told me, entirelyserious, "I'd have hit to right."

When his doctorat Johns Hopkins told him 10 years ago that he would never play baseball again,Puckett threw his hands in the air and said, "Thank you, Jesus!"

"Now I can goon with the rest of my life," he explained later. "Now I can watch mykids grow up. I'm gonna get a chance to do what I never got to do while I wasplaying baseball, which is--almost every day--go fishing."

Later in the sameconversation he said, "What am I supposed to do, stop living? I ain't evenhad a midlife crisis yet."

Tragically, thatwas to come. In 2001, the year Puckett became a first-ballot Hall of Famer, hiswife told police he had threatened her life. No charges were filed, but thecouple divorced. In '02 Puckett was charged with false imprisonment, criminalsexual conduct and assault after a woman accused him of forcibly groping her ina restaurant men's room. He was acquitted, but Puckett seemed incapable ofcarrying this baggage, and he disappeared from Minnesota.

Turns out,Minnesotans can't carry the baggage either. Reading the news of his death,local anchors lost their composure. When I proposed to my wife four years ago,I did so in the number 34 Twins throwback jersey she'd given me that day. WhenPuckett died, my e-mail in-box filled with commiserations and condolences.

I once askedPuckett to name the single thing he'd be remembered for, and he instantlyanswered, "Game 6."

His sprint-offhome run in the 11th inning of the penultimate game of the '91 World Seriesmade my skin pebble like a plucked chicken's. Late that Saturday night I stoodat his locker--Game 7 just 19 hours away--when a drained Puckett was asked ifhe'd ever be able to sleep that night.

His reply stillgives me chills: "I'll sleep when I'm dead."

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When told he'd never play baseball again, Puckettsaid, "Thank you, Jesus!" He explained later, "Now I can go on withthe rest of my life. I ain't even had a midlife crisis yet."