Not seven weeks later, on the evening of Dec. 23, Laura Nygren picked up the phone in her apartment to hear Puckett tell her that he wanted to see her that night. She says he groused, "Why the hell did I marry that bitch?"
Puckett had met Nygren a couple of years before at a nightclub, where she was checking coats that evening. She is short and blonde, a single parent in her forties now. Shortly after they met, they began a romance that lasted until, incredibly, she went to his bachelor party and gave him a good-luck goodbye kiss. But the affair resumed the night that he called her almost two months later, and it ended only when Nygren obtained a temporary order of protection against Puckett last March.
Meanwhile, oblivious to Kirby's infidelity, Tonya became the most adoring and supportive of wives. She had not gone to college, and she and Kirby decided she would not go to work, so Tonya threw herself into the business of burnishing his image. It was thrilling enough just to be Mrs. Kirby Puckett. "I was one of those wives who went to every single game," Tonya says. "People begin to know who you are. They'd see me right alongside Kirby. It was very exciting. It was a lot of very fun times.
"I loved Kirby. He said all the right things. I would have walked through fire for him. I gave up everything for him. Kirby and I decided I would follow his career and we would have children and I would do community work."
The glamour came quickly, for in 1987, Puckett's fourth major league season, the Twins won their first World Series. As Puckett hit .357, the team came from behind to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. That season Puckett also led the team in batting with a .332 average and the American League with 207 hits. It was only the start. He would go on to get more hits in his first 10 seasons than anyone else in the 20th century. It was as if he could do anything he wanted to in baseball. His first 612 times at the plate, he didn't hit a single home run. Then, magically, he turned himself into a very respectable power hitter. He could run—that comical little bowling-ball body scooting lickety-split around the bases. He had a wonderful throwing arm and six times won the Gold Glove. Ten times he would be an All-Star, once that game's MVP. At one time or another he led the league in batting average, hits, runs scored and RBIs. And, always, he was adored by everybody in the game. "Something about the guy just makes you feel good," his manager Tom Kelly said.
The Pucketts' marriage, however, was not idyllic, even if Tonya was unaware of Laura Nygren and Kirby's many other women. But the problems did not seem large at first, and anyway, the Pucketts kept their troubles to themselves. "People would see only what Kirby and I wanted them to see," Tonya explains. They could not conceive a child, and so after four years of marriage they adopted a daughter, Catherine. Two years later they adopted a son and named him Kirby Puckett Jr. The all-African-American family was complete. Kirby made millions and Tonya concentrated on charity work, notably on their most favored foundation, Children's HeartLink, which helps indigent children with heart problems.
They moved into a magnificent brick house on the top of a small hill in Edina, Minneapolis's most fashionable suburb. The place is immaculate and meticulously ordered. Every candle, every flower arrangement, every sculpture seems to connect with everything else. And dotting the house all over are pictures of the two lovely children, who are 12 and 10 now. Pictures of Kirby, too, once speckled the rooms. It took Tonya a couple of months to weed them all out.
She is her own woman now, grown up and come to grips. "Kirby was losing it a lot, and I realized he was not the person I thought he was," she says. Indeed, none of the terrible stress of the last year is visible upon her face, and she looks far younger than her 37 years. Maybe it is because she is a resilient Minnesotan, imbued with the belief, which she often expresses, that no matter what has happened, three things can make life whole again: hard work, love and God.
Tonya takes a seat upon a handsome chair in the exquisite living room. She has brown saucer eyes, long curly hair and a few cute freckles on her nose and cheeks. Unlike her roly-poly ex-husband, she has a trim figure. She is, in fact, beautiful, so that it is human nature for everyone who sees Tonya to pause and ponder how her husband could ever have strayed from a woman so gorgeous. In a way, Tonya ponders that too. "I still wake up and can't believe some of what has happened," she says.
She does not want to hate the man with whom she made a life, though. When she told the children about their father's arrest, this was how she explained it: "Daddy was at a restaurant, and there was a woman there who doesn't like your dad. She said some things about your dad that are not very nice. Your dad says he didn't do anything, and she doesn't have a reason not to like him. But she doesn't like him, so Daddy might have to go to trial to clear this all up."