At his retirement news conference almost 10 years ago, the Kirby Puckett everyone wants to remember left an entire room without a dry eye. He had lost his career to an errant Dennis Martinez pitch that smashed his jaw and blurred his vision, yet there he was, smiling, asking people not to pity him, not one bit.
"Baseball's been a great part of my life," Puckett said that July day in 1996. "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 …"
In recent months, friends and family had become alarmed about Puckett's mood and increasing weight. And their worst fears were realized Monday when Puckett, the Minnesota Twins great and Hall of Famer, died at 45 from complications following a stroke he suffered Sunday in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Puckett never was the same after the beaning, a pitch I remember distinctly. I lived in Cleveland at the time, and the Indians were on the cusp of their first playoff game since 1954. Martinez, the team's wily 40-year-old ace, made his living on the inside corner and had no trouble announcing his presence with a brushback pitch.
It was Sept. 28, 1995, and Martinez started the game by hitting leadoff batter Chuck Knoblauch. Two batters later, Puckett stepped in. He was having a typical Puckett year: batting over .300 (which he did eight times) with 23 home runs (he had more than 20 six times) and playing stellar defense (he won six Gold Gloves). Puckett lined an outside fastball foul, so Martinez felt he needed to move inside.
Of course, Puckett deserved no such warning. He was a 10-time All-Star. He had earned the plate. Martinez, dejected after the game, regretted ever throwing that pitch.
It was a brutal scene because Puckett looked convinced the pitch would break. Only at the last second did he turn his head, and by then it was too late. Blood pooled on the ground. Puckett's teammates ran to his aid.
At their feet was Kirby Puckett. Laid out in the batter's box was Minnesota baseball.
When Puckett stood a few minutes later, a towel colored crimson by blood covered his mouth. After the game, Knoblauch said, "I still can't believe how much he was bleeding."
On the way out of the Metrodome, Puckett told everyone he'd be OK. The team doctor said he'd need four to six weeks to recover. There was no reason to believe that at 35 years old Puckett would have to retire, not the way he'd fought in the past.
At 5-foot-8, Puckett was a risky pick when the Twins selected him third overall out of Triton (Ill.) College. After two years in the minor leagues, he made it to the majors in 1984 and was an immediate defensive presence. In Puckett's third season, his bat caught up with his glove, and he hammered 31 home runs to go along with a .328 batting average.
It was tough not to like Puckett. He looked like a tree stump, short and thick, and playing so uninhibited, it seemed as though he had little regard for his body, something that would truly manifest itself once he retired.
Puckett's style inspired a following in Minnesota after he led the team to World Series championships in 1987 and 1991. The glaucoma that ensued after Martinez's pitch forced his retirement, and the Twins, to this day, haven't found a replacement for Puckett's infectious spirit.
Nor, for that matter, has Minnesota found an athlete so beloved, even with the problems Puckett faced after retirement.
His ex-wife, Tonya, alleged that Puckett had a history of violence during their marriage, which ended in 2002. And in September 2002, Puckett was arrested after a woman accused him of fondling her breast after yanking her into a restaurant bathroom. He was acquitted of that charge in 2003.
Neither image fit the Kirby Puckett that seemed too good to be true at the news conference announcing his retirement – the smiling, laughing, happy-go-lucky Hall of Famer everyone wanted to remember.
Those images gave way to a Kirby Puckett whose weight ballooned and whose health deteriorated and then failed, leaving a city and a sport in mourning.
It all led to a Kirby Puckett whose family and friends did what he asked them not to do. They worried. Turns out, sadly, they were right in doing so.
- Kirby Puckett