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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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Last Sept. 5, Puckett drove a few miles from Bloomington to Eden Prairie, to the Redstone American Grill. He spent much of the evening at the bar in the company of an old friend, Minneapolis police officer Tony Adams. But at half past midnight, according to witness accounts, a woman in her thirties, identified only as K.L., was standing near the rest rooms when suddenly a stocky, bald black man in a blue shirt materialized at her side, seized her left forearm and began to drag her into the men's room. K.L. grabbed at the door frame, sustaining bruises on an arm and an ankle, as the man kept yanking her into the room.

According to the police report, K.L. was pulled into a toilet stall, where the man touched one of her breasts. It was her belief—as she told 911 a few minutes later—that the man intended to rape her, but her girlfriend opened the door to the men's room and screamed. The man released his grip on K.L., and she fled back into the bar, looking, a patron said, "terrified."

She reportedly did not know who her assailant was, but when she pointed out the stocky, bald black man in the blue shirt, a bar employee identified him as Puckett, and he was subsequently charged with a felony, false imprisonment, and a misdemeanor, fifth-degree criminal sexual assault. If convicted, Puckett probably faces up to a year in jail, plus fines and community service.

His lawyers claim that the woman was intoxicated and had been acting in a lewd fashion. The prosecutor for Hennepin County, Amy Klobuchar, calls that defamatory and dismisses it as "a standard defense tactic" in he-said/she-said trials of this nature. She maintains that the county has a solid "independent witness" who saw the alleged abduction, and she avers, "We have gone to court before with less evidence than what we have in this case."

Puckett's friends, of course, want to believe that his accuser is an attention-seeker taking advantage of a celebrity. Despite Puckett's tarnished reputation, many people in Minnesota still stand by him. For example, Greg Peterson, a game-room store owner who has known Puckett for more than a decade, says, "He never asked for attention. It came because that's just the type of person he is. It was genuine. Sure, Kirby might have a little flaw. Everyone does."

We do cling hard to a belief in our athletes. Ours is an increasingly sedentary society, and we are beholden to technology-very little of which we comprehend—so the physical prowess of athletes is all the more appealing. Even with a war hanging over us, warriors, our most traditional heroes, are not so romantic anymore, not in an armed force of gas masks and smart bombs. Ah, but athletes: they who, as of yore, simply achieve physically, naturally (is there any sweeter phrase than natural athlete?), as human beings, flesh and blood.

Puckett stays pretty much to himself now, rarely venturing into public except to attend Timberwolves games. At 5'8" he played heavy, around 220, maybe 230, and the weight was cute then, icing on his persona, but now he's up to 280, perhaps even 300, and he's just plain fat. "He looks horrible, like he's about to blow up," Nygren says. "Both his parents died of heart disease, and with his weight where it is now, he's getting into very dangerous territory."

A lot of athletes put on weight when they leave the game, Tonya points out, and their problems can multiply if they also get divorced. "For so many of these guys, the wife is like the mother, the agent, the cook, everything," she says. "And all of a sudden, when you don't have someone to take care of you, life gets tough."

It's most telling that when Tonya thinks about that night in the Redstone and wonders whether Kirby did the things he is charged with, this is what comes first to her mind: "It does seem kinda odd, because why would he need to do that?" After all, nobody knows better than she does how much fans give their heroes, how much Minnesota gave her husband and how much, it seems, we need to lionize boys and men who play games so much better than we do.

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