It was absurd. His vision had always been [20/20]. "Here I am, a lifetime .318 hitter, I got 2,300 hits with these eyes, I mean that's the last thing in the world I would ever think, that something was wrong with these eyes."
On April 12 of last year an early form of glaucoma was diagnosed, and it went un-alleviated by three laser surgeries over the next two months. Finally, on July 12, Dr. Bert Glaser at the Retina Institute of Maryland performed a final, last-ditch surgery, called a vitrectomy, to try to restore blood flow to Puckett's retina. "This was the telltale," says Puckett. "Everyone was nervous. But I was calm, because I was finally going to know. Will I get back in shape and go at it again, or just shut it down?"
When Puckett came out of surgery, his wile and two agents were waiting nervously. Puckett lay on the bed with a patch on his right eye as Dr. Glaser said softly, "Kirby, I'm sorry to say this, but, unfortunately, you won't be able to play baseball anymore." Tonya wept, and the agents teared up, and Puckett closed his eyes and turned his face toward the ceiling and...raised his arms in a gesture of triumph. "Yes," he said. "Thank you. Thank you, Jesus."
"Within hours, we flew to Minneapolis to announce his retirement," says Ron Shapiro, one of Puckett's agents. "That's when Kirby walked into that locker room and said to everyone, 'It may be a cloudy day in my right eye, but there's sunshine in my left eye.' "
"I was just so happy to know that, O.K., now I can get on with the rest of my life," says Puckett. "My life in baseball, yes, it's over. But life isn't over. Life just begins now."
He wants to spend that life, he says, helping others. On this day, he has a letter on his desk from the mother of a 10-year-old boy with congenital blindness in his right eye. "Keep hanging in there," Puckett writes him. "Everything's going to be fine. Fifth grade's going to be harder than fourth grade, so you have to finish strong and get good grades. Because you can't see out of one eye, that shouldn't stop you from living your dreams."
On behalf of Pharmacia & Upjohn, makers of the anti-inflammatory eye-drops that he applies five times daily—"four drops in the bad eye, one in the good eye as a preventative measure" is all he does to treat his eyes—Puckett speaks to groups around the country, urging them to get screened for glaucoma. His favorite audience, however, is children. Children are naturally drawn to him—former Minnesota general manager Andy MacPhail once saw a small child point to a Twins logo and say "Kirby Puckett!"—whether or not they know he was a ballplayer.
Puckett thinks that rapport has to do with his fun-to-say name and his cartoonlike physique. "Kids like me because they're taller than I am," Puckett says. "I tell 'em people come in all shapes and sizes, and because a guy is taller than me doesn't mean he's better than me. Your heart is what matters."
There is a line in the children's book The Little Prince that may more aptly explain his appeal. "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly," says one of the book's characters. "What is essential is invisible to the eye." In which case, Puckett's vision will be just fine.