Twins left to mourn Puckett's death

Twins left to mourn Puckett's death

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Hall of Famer and Twins great Kirby Puckett passed away Monday afternoon at a Phoenix hospital, one day after suffering a massive stroke. He was 45.

"The entire Minnesota Twins organization is saddened by the loss of Twins great Kirby Puckett," the team said in a statement.

Considered one of the greatest players ever to don a Twins uniform, Puckett spent 12 years with the club before his career was cut short in 1996 when glaucoma caused him to lose sight in his right eye. Puckett retired as the club's all-time leader in hits (2,304), doubles (414), total bases (3,453), at-bats (7,244) and runs (1,071). The 10-time All-Star was then selected as a first-ballot inductee into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001.

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

Puckett was a six-time Gold Glove outfielder and five-time Silver Slugger. He led the American League in hitting in 1989, batting .339. But, aside from his affable personality, he was best known for his unforgettable walk-off home run in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, which the Twins won in seven games. He was the MVP of the ALCS that year and also was a key member of the Twins' 1987 World Series championship team.

He was a leader off the field as well, being honored with the Roberto Clemente Award in 1996. Puckett is survived by his daughter Catherine, son Kirby, Jr., and his fiancée Jodi Olson and her son Cameron.

Arrangements have not yet been made for Puckett's memorial but tributes began popping up at the Metrodome almost immediately following the announcement of Puckett's passing. Signs, flowers and baseballs were laid out in front of the Twins' stadium to honor one of the most popular Twins players of all time.

"On behalf of Major League Baseball, I am terribly saddened by the sudden passing of Kirby Puckett," Commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig said in a statement Monday night. "Kirby was one of the great players of the 1980s and 1990s. I admired Kirby throughout his career. He was a Hall of Famer in every sense of the term.

"He played his entire career with the Twins and was an icon in Minnesota. But he was revered throughout the country and will be remembered wherever the game is played. Kirby was taken from us much too soon -- and too quickly. My deepest sympathies and condolences go out to his family and friends."

Puckett suffered the stroke at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., early Sunday morning and underwent surgery that afternoon. The Hall of Fame player remained in critical condition and in intensive care at St. Josephs Hospital and Medical Center until Monday afternoon when the hospital said he was given last rites and had died.

It was a sad ending to a life that appeared to be the picturesque story of the American dream. The youngest of nine children who grew up amid poverty in a Chicago housing project, Puckett was drafted by the Twins in 1982 and became a fixture of the team just two years later.

It didn't take long for Puckett to establish a star-like quality, as on May 8, 1984, in Anaheim, Calif., he became the ninth player in MLB history to collect four hits in his Major League debut.

One of the rare players of this generation who spent his entire career with one club, Puckett became more than just an ordinary hero in Minnesota -- he was a legend. Even with his 5-foot-8, 220-pound build that resembled a football player more than an outfielder, "Puck" was known for his flair for nifty catches and a strong arm that never seemed to miss a target. A fan favorite, it was Puckett's everyman look and gregarious attitude that seemed to appeal to the legions of baseball followers.

"He was small, strong and didn't have a prototypical baseball body," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "And it was something that people really seemed to relate to. He was some kind of strong."

Puckett continued to generate highlight reels like the ones he made in the '91 World Series until he woke up one morning in March of 1996 with blurred vision in his right eye. He never again would play in a Major League game. The Twins retired his No. 34 jersey in 1997 and enshrined him in the inaugural class selected for the organization's Hall of Fame in 2000.

Even with the bad luck he received at the end of his career, Puckett never seemed to dwell on the negativity. The phrase of living a dream became a favorite of Puckett's and one than he used on numerous occasions.

"I want you to remember the guiding principles of my life: You can be what you want to be," Puckett said in his Hall of Fame speech in 2001. "If you believe in yourself, and you work hard, anything, and I'm telling you, anything is possible."

Puckett remained a fixture with the team even following his retirement. He joined the Twins front office staff as an executive vice president but resigned the role in 2002. The team had been trying to get the former player to come back as a special instructor for this year's Spring Training, but those attempts were unsuccessful.

"It seemed just right with him in a Twins uniform and the last few years he wasn't in one, which really bothers a lot of us," Ryan said. "You always wonder what could have happened if we had just kept him in uniform. That's bothersome."

The dramatic end to his career appeared to hurt Puckett deeply even though he never admitted it publicly, and his health seemed to suffer because of it. The former slugger continued to put on weight since retiring. The weight gain was especially alarming considering Puckett's family history of heart disease. The player had lost many of his family members before the age of 50 to various health problems.

"The last few times I saw him, he just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger," Twins great Tony Oliva said.

It was worrisome to both Twins center fielder Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones, now with the Cubs. The two players came up in the Minnesota system and viewed Puckett as a mentor in their early years.

"We were all concerned," Jones said Sunday. "A man's going to be a man, a woman's going to be a woman. You can't change what they're going to do unless they want to change. He enjoyed life, he enjoyed the size he was. That's who he was."

It wasn't just his weight that seemed to spiral out of control once his playing days were over. Puckett went through a divorce in late 2001, and then in 2002, charges of abuse from a woman that he allegedly had an 18-year-affair with surfaced.

The bad news continued to pile on the former player and Puckett dropped out of the public view after his 2003 acquittal on charges that he groped a woman at a Twin Cities restaurant.

There had been hope things were turning around for Puckett, as some Twins players and coaches who saw Puckett at Harmon Killebrew's golf outing in Arizona this past November said Puckett appeared to be trying to lose weight and get his health back in order. He was also planning to remarry this June.

It's the thought that a life that seemed ready to restart ended so soon that sticks with Ryan.

"Losing part of playing career and now this, it just doesn't seem right," Ryan said. "And it doesn't seem fair. Unfortunately, it's starting to settle in now."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.