In the Twin Cities he was more beloved than ever, especially for all the good works he did for sick children. He even wrote a children's book, Kirby Puckett: Be the Best You Can Be. Contributions to the annual pool tournament, the Kirby Puckett Eight-Ball Invitational, that he and Tonya ran for Children's HeartLink, were reaching several million dollars. People on the inside knew that it was Tonya who was doing all the work, but most of the acclaim went to the ballplayer who showed up to shoot pool with the other local celebrities. Tonya didn't mind. She understood how we have this compulsion to build up our nice athletes, to exaggerate their generosity—and their intellect and their spirituality and their travails and their humor, too. "Yes, Kirby gets the claps," she admitted to the Saint Paul Pioneer Press after she sued for divorce, "but I know in my heart what I do, and people who know me know what I do. I didn't need the claps." It was more important for her to sustain her husband's impeccable reputation.
Today, though, Tonya doesn't know whether Kirby was at all genuine in giving what little he did of himself to her good works. She pauses for a long time before venturing, "I guess, well, only Kirby has the answer to that. Only he can say if his heart was really in it."
However, Nygren, the other woman, says that Puckett often spoke resentfully about having to visit children in order to bulwark his image. "He always said how much he hated going to the hospitals," Nygren says. "He became more [vocal] about how much he hated it after he retired, but he always said he hated it."
One day, enjoying his retirement, Puckett was with Nygren when he said he had to leave and go visit a sick child who was waiting to meet him. Nygren said, "That's great, you get to make that kid's day. That must make you feel good."
She says Puckett snapped back, "I don't give a s—-. It's just another kid who's sick."
Even though Nygren knew him so well by then, the virulent mean-spiritedness stunned her. She wanted to think the best of him, to think that his inability to play anymore must have made him bitter. But when she asked him if he missed the ballpark, he snapped at her again: "F—- no! That part of my life is over. I don't care."
Indeed, it was remarkable how well he appeared—at least on the surface—to accept his fate. After all, one day, March 27, 1996, he was the same as always. Why, he'd even hit .360 in spring training. But then on March 28 there wasn't enough blood flowing to the retina in his right eye, and, even though his left was still 20/20, there was a big black dot in the middle of his vision.
Five surgeries followed over the next few months, all to no avail. Puckett had to retire, but he was as plucky, even valiant, as ever he had been on the diamond. "It may be a cloudy day in my right eye," he declared in the clubhouse, "but there's sunshine in my left." Indeed, it was Tonya, at his side as he announced his retirement, who broke down and wept, so Kirby reached over and gently rubbed her back and, more tenderly, wiped a tear from her cheek. That was the last public vision of the heroic player, Minnesota's own Kirby Puckett.
Yet not long thereafter, denied a chance to play his game, he began to behave erratically. "He became much more thrill-seeking," Nygren says. "And more abusive." He would ask her to have sex with him in public places—especially in crowded parking lots—and in his office at the Twins' headquarters, which were located on what was now called Kirby Puckett Place.
Besides sentimentality, the Twins had a pragmatic reason for keeping Puckett on the payroll. The team's owner, Carl Pohlad, was seeking funding for a new stadium. Unpopular himself, Pohlad paid Puckett a reported $500,000 a year to essentially be a lobbyist and goodwill ambassador. Says John Marty, a state senator from Roseville, "Kirby came to the Capitol, and the media were using him, and people were saying, 'Do this for Kirby's sake.' He was as popular as Santa Claus."