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The Rise and Fall of Kirby Puckett
Frank Deford
March 17, 2003
The media and the fans in Minnesota turned the Twins' Hall of Famer into a paragon of every virtue—and that made his human flaws, when they came to light, all the more shocking
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March 17, 2003

The Rise And Fall Of Kirby Puckett

The media and the fans in Minnesota turned the Twins' Hall of Famer into a paragon of every virtue—and that made his human flaws, when they came to light, all the more shocking

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Now, Minneapolis and St. Paul are wonderful hometowns, friendly and progressive, even urbane for their size, but to fans in all the less glamorous big league metropolises, it means a great deal when their players actually certify them by staying year-round. From F. Scott Fitzgerald to the Andrews Sisters, people from the Twin Cities have tended to become famous only after they've left the Twin Cities behind. In so many places like Minneapolis-St. Paul there are no stars in residence. The likes of television weathermen are promoted to celebrity. Good God, in Minnesota they gave a professional wrassler the whole state just because he continued to grace it with his fame. Besides, in a nation tilting Sunbelt, Minnesota must also fight the nasty stain of brrr.

Athletes are romantic idols, worshiped by innocent children and stunted adults, but the more knowing burghers keep them at arm's length, understanding that they are theirs only by uniform, just highly paid drummers passing through. So when Kirby Puckett married a beautiful local girl, Tonya Hudson, and took root in the Twin Cities, it mattered—all the more so because he was African-American. After all, Puckett was one of the few blacks on a team in a metropolitan area with a small minority population, so he was held up as Exhibit A Homey, not only for other African-Americans who would join the Twins but also for those hired by the Vikings and, later, the Timberwolves.

He continued to profess love for his new hometown, and his well-documented philanthropic efforts, particularly on behalf of poor and sick children, endeared him all the more to the citizenry. This is the favored expression in such cases: He gave back to his community.

Says Jeff Dubay, a personality at sports radio KFAN, "Kirby was not a guy who lived here for only six months. He is the professional athlete who has been put above all others. People think of this town as being a little different from L.A. or New York. There are values here." Puckett embodied them. He was invariably lumped together with Cal Ripken Jr. in Baltimore and Tony Gwynn in San Diego as one of those rare, dear throwback players who prize love and loyalty above the mercenary lures of the highest bidder. By 1989 Puckett was the highest-paid player in the game, but the fans begrudged him nothing, and, in 1992, when the pinch-penny Twins vacillated about paying market value for Puckett, his neighbors rose up as one—well, 81% of them, by actual poll—to demand that the Twins fork over to Puckett whatever it took to keep him in their fond embrace. That summer, at the Democratic National Convention in New York City, the Great State of Minnesota was no longer the Land of 10,000 Lakes. No, its spokesman officially proclaimed it thusly: " Minnesota, the state of Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey and Kirby Puckett...." That time was Minnesota's own Summer of Love.

Puckett was stirred by the mass affection. "Everything I do now, the fans give me a standing ovation," he said. "How could I be anything but overwhelmed?" He lived up to his end of the romantic bargain, too, by signing another Minnesota contract, the terms of which, though a bountiful $30 million for five years, were considerably less than he could have earned in sexier, more affluent markets. Soon, a grateful Kirby and Tonya increased their largesse to their hometown by endowing a scholarship program at the University of Minnesota.

"He was so personable and [so much a] part of the community fabric," says Sharon Sayles Belton, who was mayor of Minneapolis from 1994 through 2001. "He was Kirby, the baseball icon, and Kirby, the person. Even when he had to leave baseball, people went the extra mile to let him know that they still cared." To the Twin Cities on the Mississippi, Kirby Puckett was not only .318 lifetime, he was also a paragon. The state that had bequeathed us the original American sports hero, Paul Bunyan, finally had found the big fellow's 20th-century heir.

Now, of course, on the far side of the millennium, Sayles Belton says, "People are hurting. It's sad for the fans. It's very sad. Everyone is hurting."

More pointedly, Jeff Dubay at KFAN says, "It makes us look a little stupid."

Women have always thrown themselves at athletes. That was so even before they made gobs of money. The women who marry athletes accommodate the reality of their husbands' lives in various ways, denial being one of them. Before he became a radio interlocutor, Dubay worked as a Twins bat boy. "With the exception of guys who were devout Christians," he remembers, "virtually everybody had someone on the side. I would walk past the wives and think, They are either the dumbest or the most naive people in the world. I mean, everybody knew it was going on."

Tonya Puckett says she didn't know. She was only 20 when Kirby first took her out. He was in his second season with the team but was already fast becoming a star and everybody's pet. That very first night he told Tonya he was going to marry her. She wasn't that guileless; she could recognize a line when she heard one. But only two weeks later, Kirby sat down with her father and, in that old-fashioned way, told Mr. Hudson that he wanted to marry his daughter and care for her. Not long after, Tonya and Kirby were engaged, and then they were wed, on Nov. 1, 1986.

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