Puckett keeps hustling in fight against glaucoma Ex-Twin makes visit to push for screenings

May 01, 1998|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Leave it to Kirby Puckett, formerly one of baseball's most unselfish players, to turn his own vision loss into a potential gain for others.

Puckett will be appearing at various locations throughout the Baltimore area today, including Camden Yards, on behalf of the "Don't Be Blindsided" program to educate the public on the importance of regular glaucoma screenings. It's a subject Puckett holds near to his heart, bringing the same passion that helped define his 12 seasons with the Minnesota Twins.

His eyesight diminished by the effects of glaucoma, Puckett was forced to retire in 1996. Since then, having lost all the sight in his right eye, he's been transformed from All-Star center fielder and World Series hero to national spokesman, making the switch appear as routine as catching a fly ball.

Lend his name to the cause? That wouldn't suffice. Puckett, instead, has immersed himself in it.

"I do have glaucoma, and I'm living with it every day. Not only am I talking the talk, but I'm walking the walk. I walk with it every day," he said.

"I just try to get the word out to people, to let them know they don't have to be embarrassed about having it."

He can be heard at Camden Yards today, at the community booth on the lower concourse by Home Plate Plaza. Fans will be offered free glaucoma screenings through the sixth inning of the Orioles' game against the Minnesota Twins.

This will cap a busy day for Puckett, who also is scheduled to appear at the NeighborCare corporate office in Baltimore, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Maryland, Sinai Hospital and McCormick & Company. By September, he will have graced ballparks in Phoenix, Arlington, Texas, St. Louis, San Diego and Miami, injecting his pleas with the same frightening message.

"All I want people to do is please get screened for glaucoma," he said. "There are 3 million Americans walking around with it right now who don't even know they have it. That's what's so scary."

Puckett was one of them. He had been hit in the face by a pitch late in the 1995 season, but made it through most of the next spring training. With the Twins ready to break camp, he awoke one morning to darkness.

"I thought I laid on my eye wrong. If you were standing in front of me, I couldn't see your face. My central vision was gone just that quick," he said.

"I went to the best eye specialist in Fort Myers and they couldn't tell me anything. Before I knew it, that night I was on my way to Baltimore to see a glaucoma specialist. When the final diagnosis came, I had open-angle glaucoma and irreversible retina damage. For me it was a double whammy.

"But it was kind of a blessing because my left eye is still good and doctors have assured me that as long as I put my drops in every day, I'll be able to see out of it for the rest of my life. And that's the best news I could possibly receive."

Others close to Puckett weren't so upbeat. Orioles manager Ray Miller, who managed the Twins for parts of two seasons in the mid-1980s, remembers reading about Puckett's retirement and feeling a strong sense of loss.

"I hated to see it because, you've got to know Kirby. He's such an inspiration to everybody in the league," said Miller. "He played the game with tremendous zeal. He just makes you smile when you see him. He's a great ambassador to the game, too. People like that make you want to stay in the game. You just love being around them."

Pub Date: 5/01/98

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