Ex-Twin Puckett suffers stroke

Hall of Famer, 44, undergoes surgery, is in `serious shape'

March 06, 2006|By DAVID HAUGH | DAVID HAUGH,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The woman whose 18-year relationship with Kirby Puckett ended acrimoniously four years ago says that the former player used to kid her with a prediction that seemed even more ominous as she recalled it yesterday.

"Kirby always said he was going to die before he turned 50," Laura Nygren said from her home in suburban Minneapolis. "I'm praying he gets through this."

Puckett, the Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame outfielder, suffered a stroke yesterday morning at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. A week from his 45th birthday, Puckett underwent surgery at Scottsdale Healthcare Osborne as friends and family rushed to the bedside of one of baseball's most popular players in the 1990s.

Puckett was airlifted from Scottsdale Memorial Hospital to Scottsdale Healthcare Osborne, where he underwent several hours of surgery, team president Dave St. Peter said. Puckett later was transferred to St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix.

A spokeswoman at St. Joseph's confirmed that Puckett was there, but said the hospital had been asked not to release any information about his condition.

"He's in serious shape." Twins general manager Terry Ryan said late last night.

Ron Shapiro, who was Puckett's Baltimore-based agent, said he had been in contact with Puckett's family yesterday.

"We're all praying for his recovery," Shapiro said.

One person who had spoken to a member of Puckett's family earlier in the day called the situation "grave" and said that his ex-wife, Tonya, and two children were on their way to Arizona.

According to friends of Puckett's, he was enjoying life in Scottsdale since moving west a little more than a year ago to find post-baseball paradise in a house on Shangri La Drive. He had gotten engaged to be married to Jodi Olson on June 24 in Minnesota, and, at the urging of former teammates, had begun an exercise regimen because his weight had ballooned close to 300 pounds on his 5-foot-8 frame.

"Puck enjoyed life and enjoyed the size he was," said Chicago Cubs outfielder Jacque Jones, a friend of Puckett's from their days with the Twins. "That's who he was."

Bob Symonds, the retired baseball coach at Triton College in River Grove, Ill., who coached Puckett, considered Puckett's authenticity one of his greatest strengths. He last spoke to his former player about a month ago.

"One time he told me he had to lose some weight, but to have a stroke at that age is really shocking," Symonds said. "But he hasn't changed his personality. He could come right out of this stroke and immediately want to know how you're doing. That's just the way he is."

Members of the Twins' organization, including former manager Tom Kelly, were visibly stunned.

"It's distressing news," Kelly said. "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."

Jones spoke to Puckett's fiancee yesterday morning and kept in contact with members of the Twins family shaken by the news.

"He was always happy-go-lucky, even when he came down with glaucoma," Jones said. "He enjoyed the game, every minute of it. That's why he played every game like it was his last."

Cubs president Andy MacPhail, who made Puckett the game's first $3 million-a-year player in 1989 when he was the Twins' general manager, expressed concern and optimism for a guy he called "probably the greatest teammate I've ever been around."

"You always felt better when you were around Kirby," MacPhail said. "He would tease anybody, he would tease me, whoever. He just has that way about him."

The affection Puckett cultivated in winning two World Series, a batting title and six Gold Gloves in 12 seasons with the Twins helped him survive the publicity created by sexual-assault allegations four years ago, when a woman alleged Puckett pulled her into a bathroom at an Eden Prairie, Minn., restaurant and groped her. He was acquitted in an April 2003 trial of all three charges.

Still, his role as a team executive and job as ambassador that paid Puckett $500,000 changed, and it took awhile before some Twins fans felt the same crossing 34 Kirby Puckett Place on their way to the Metrodome.

During that same period, revelations of Puckett's longtime relationship with Nygren and accusations of violence by his ex-wife sullied his reputation even more. Puckett's former wife alleged that during their rocky marriage that he once cocked a gun to her head as she held their then-2-year-old daughter and later tried to strangle her with a telephone cord.

Nygren, the former mistress who also filed a past complaint of abuse against Puckett, said there was more to her former companion beneath the famous smile. She has not spoken with Puckett since she filed a restraining order on Valentine's Day 2002 after the latest threat.

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