Smile lit up baseball

Twins outfielder Puckett won Series, friends with exuberant nature

Kirby Puckett 1960-2006

March 07, 2006|By TIM BROWN | TIM BROWN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Kirby Puckett, a Hall of Fame outfielder who won two World Series in a 12-year career with the Minnesota Twins, died yesterday, a day after suffering a stroke at his Arizona home. He was 45.

Puckett was pronounced dead at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Scottsdale, Ariz., after undergoing surgery Sunday at a nearby hospital. He was given last rites and died in the afternoon.

Puckett will be honored with a moment of silence before today's World Baseball Classic game in Phoenix between the United States and Mexico.

Known for his squat frame, bubbly personality and boundless determination, Puckett was a beloved figure in Minnesota. But at 35 he was forced to retire because of glaucoma in his right eye.

En route to his Hall of Fame induction in 2001, he was a 10-time All-Star, six-time Gold Glove Award winner and a career .318 hitter, and he led the Twins to World Series titles in 1987 and 1991. His 11th-inning home run in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series staved off elimination for the Twins, who then won Game 7.

"This is like Mickey Mantle dying in New York for Minnesota," said Roy Smith, a former Oriole who pitched for the Twins from 1986 to 1990. "There are people in Minnesota who never were within 10 miles of that guy who are crying right now."

As a player, Puckett earned a reputation as an ardent family man whose charitable endeavors, particularly in helping children, earned him many national honors. After he retired, however, he was divorced amid accusations of spousal abuse and adultery, and was cleared of an assault charge in 2003, having been accused of groping a woman in a Minneapolis-area restaurant.

In recent years the previously personable Puckett was rarely seen in public. Always pudgy - he played at 5 feet 8, about 210 pounds - Puckett was said to have gained as many as 100 pounds, and friends began to fret about his health. He left his front office job with the Twins in 2002 and turned down subsequent offers to serve as a guest coach with the organization.

"It's a tough thing to see a guy go through something like that and come to this extent," former teammate Kent Hrbek said last night.

"That's what really hurt him bad, when he was forced out of the game," he said. "I don't know if he ever recovered from it."

Asked what he would remember the most from their playing days, Hrbek quickly answered, "Just his smile, his laughter and his love for the game."

His Hall of Fame plaque praised his "ever-present smile and infectious exuberance."

"This is a sad day for the Minnesota Twins, Major League Baseball and baseball fans everywhere," Twins owner Carl Pohlad said.

"We lost one of the real compassionate people and players today," said Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan. "It's a tough loss for anyone who loves the game, as Kirby did."

Puckett's signature performance came in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series against the Atlanta Braves. After telling anyone who would listen before the game that he would lead the Twins to victory that night at the Metrodome, he made a leaping catch against the fence and then hit a game-ending homer in the 11th inning to force a seventh game.

The next night, Jack Morris went all 10 innings to outlast John Smoltz and pitch the Twins to a 1-0 win for their second championship in five years.

"If we had to lose and if one person basically was the reason - you never want to lose - but you didn't mind it being Kirby Puckett. When he made the catch and when he hit the home run you could tell the whole thing had turned," Smoltz said last night.

Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk echoed Smoltz's sentiment.

"There was no player I enjoyed playing against more than Kirby. He brought such joy to the game. He elevated the play of everyone around him," Fisk said in a statement to the Hall.

Puckett's hold extended beyond just baseball.

"He was one of my first idols as a kid growing up," said Los Angeles Lakers forward and Minnesota native Devean George. "Not only was he a great athlete, he did a lot of things for the city. People could touch him. He was visible, he was always around, doing things in the community."

Puckett's birthdate was frequently listed as March 14, 1961, but recent research by the Hall of Fame indicated he was born a year earlier.

"He was the best teammate I've ever been around," Chicago Cubs president Andy MacPhail said last night.

MacPhail was general manager of the Twins when Puckett led the team.

"The players around him couldn't dog it because he's running out groundouts in spring training games," MacPhail said. "It was impossible for people to give half an effort when the best player on the team was going full bore."

MacPhail recalled one hot summer day in 1988, about 2 o'clock, the game five hours away and the empty Metrodome nearly silent, and there was Puckett in the batter's box, with a kid throwing batting practice.

This was before the era when players routinely had personal trainers and valets. Puckett paid a kid to throw an hour of batting practice to him.

"Beats sitting around the house," he said. "You can only do this for so long, so you better enjoy every minute you can."

When glaucoma first struck in spring training in 1996, he joked about it to keep spirits up, called himself the one-eyed Jack.

"I've said it before and I'll say it again," he said in his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2001. "It may be cloudy in my right eye, but the sun is shining very brightly in my left eye."

Tim Brown writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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