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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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Kirby Jr. took this in, and then he asked his mother if she still believed his father. Straightaway, Tonya replied, "That is your daddy, and he will always be your daddy, and I am going to believe your dad until I hear I shouldn't believe your dad."

Tonya smiles gamely at the recollection. Then she sits back and talks about her ex-husband, speaking evenly, almost clinically: "Kirby never cared what people thought about him. I remember after we got married one of things he told me was, 'Don't worry about what other people think about you.' That was scary. I knew that he dealt with situations much differently than anyone I had ever seen. He was not an emotional person, and things that might bother the average person never bothered Kirby."

She pauses and then, shifting slightly, grows more intense and critical: "I think Kirby had many, many opportunities to change the way he was living his life, and when you make poor choices there have to be consequences." Tonya pauses again. "In my heart," she says, "I think Kirby feels that there are things that he deserves."

That is the nub of it, really. We give our sports heroes so very much, starting with the benefit of the doubt, that soon so many of them start to expect. And then to grasp.

"Look at Kirby, look at all of them," Tonya goes on. "I don't know too many athletes, even the ones who claim to be these wonderful Christians, who aren't out doing some terrible things. It's insane. There is something terribly wrong with this, because it doesn't just start in the major leagues. It starts when they're young, like in high school, and there is a code they follow. You get somebody like Kirby Puckett, and he is with this girl and doing this and that, and I think something just happens to your mind when you lie and cheat for that long."

She means, specifically, that she fears that, while being an icon, he was "spinning out of control." It was hardly just the womanizing, after all. When Tonya finally called the Edina police on Dec. 21, 2001, to report that Kirby had, over the phone, threatened to kill her, she also mentioned earlier abuses. Her husband was, she said through her tears, a violent man. Once, she said, he tried to strangle her with an electrical cord. Once he locked her in the basement. Another time, when he was furious and she locked herself in a room, he used a power saw to cut through the door. Once he even put a gun, cocked, to Tonya's head as she quaked, clasping little Catherine in her arms.

Still, she stayed with him. It was only years later, when Tonya learned that he'd been unfaithful, that she felt she had to leave Kirby. Different straws break the camel's back for different people. "I was absolutely devastated," Tonya says. "I loved Kirby so much. I didn't think I could live without him."

Some of the most terrifying incidents that Tonya recalls took place in the Puckett house in and around the Summer of Love. That was Kirby's special season, but the previous year had been the most enchanting baseball time ever for Minnesota. The Twins had finished in the cellar in 1990, but in '91, led by Puckett, they became the first team in baseball history to go from last place to world champions. They stormed through the Toronto Blue Jays in the playoffs as Puckett, the series MVP, hit .429. This brought the team up against the Atlanta Braves in the World Series. Minnesota fell behind, three games to two, while, for the first time that postseason, Puckett struggled some at the plate.

In the sixth game, though, as the two teams battled nine innings to a 3-3 tie, it was the Puck who kept the Twins alive. He hit a triple, a sacrifice fly, a single; he stole a base and scored a run; and he made a spectacular catch that saved a run—and with it, the game and the Series. In the 11th inning, with the score still tied at three, Puckett led off with the home run that won the game (and made it possible for Minnesota to win the Series the next night).

The seasons that followed may have been less dramatic because the Twins tumbled from the top, but Puckett continued to produce with the consistency that would, indeed, make him an easy first-ballot selection to the Hall of Fame. He blew by the 2,000-hit mark, and in 1995, in his 12th season, at age 34, he still had one of his best years: .314 with 23 home runs and 99 RBIs.

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