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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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In the final analysis, all they really know now in Minnesota is that he was one whale of a baseball player. They'll never be so sure of anyone else again. So, maybe that's a tough lesson well learned. The dazzling creatures are still just ballplayers; don't wrap them in gauze and tie them up with the pretty ribbons of Nice Guy or Boy Next Door (and certainly not of Knight in Shining Armor).

On the other hand, what a price did fans pay to lose their dear illusions. You see, when the hero falls, maybe the hero worshipers fall harder. After all, Kirby Puckett always knew who he was. Well, he probably did. Nothing seemed to faze him. It was all the other folks who decided he must be someone else, something more. Yeah, the lovable little Puck was living a lie, but whose lie was it? In the final analysis.

It wasn't just that he was such a good ballplayer. Barry Bonds is much better, but nobody would give him anything but the hammer and nails to build his own pedestal. The Puck, though: He was adorable, chubby and bald, Everymanish—"a cantaloupe with legs," as Jim Murray described him. Even his name! Absolutely euphonious, a joy out of Dickens. He was all-out, all-around, a gamer, the kinda guy who kept the National Pastime present. He was (this is a modest sampling of observations) "a real-life Smurf...[with] an immaculate reputation...the eighth wonder of the world...everything that is good about baseball." He was given the Branch Rickey Award and the Roberto Clemente Man of the Year Award—both for service to the community—and inducted into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame. Bob Costas, the Cupid of baseball, named his firstborn after, of all the players on all the teams of all time, Kirby Puckett. Kirby Coins were minted. For the children: Kirby Bears. When a local magazine listed "The 100 Best Things about the Twin Cities," Puckett was the top-rated citizen, ranked fifth overall, just ahead of the Mississippi River and Betty Crocker.

Maybe all this stuff was a burden. Especially after he woke up one bright spring morning in 1996 and thought he'd slept funny on one eye, only it was glaucoma, and so never again could the Puck stand in against horsehides flung 90 to 95 mph. Just like that, no warning, he had to hang it up. Then he wasn't a ballplayer anymore, let alone a whale of one. Then he was just back to being fat little Kirby Puckett. Of course, this meant being able to spend more time with his mistress of many years, who nobody seems to have known existed, because Kirby was, of course, an ideal family man—even though, truth be told, he wasn't even an ideal scoundrel, because he also had cheated on his mistress of many years with a passel of other sad and lonely women. And you thought the fans were duped. She was so shocked at his perfidy, the mistress of many years, that she began to seek comfort in commiseration with the wife.

Anyway, the mistress of many years says that when Puckett couldn't play baseball anymore, "he started to become full of himself and very abusive." He began to perform lewd acts in public, such as going to a fancy shopping center, parking there, then opening his car door and stepping out and peeing in plain view of other people (Twins fans presumably included).

The mistress decided that it had to be one of two things. Either: "It was almost like he wanted to see what he could get away with." Or: "He wanted to get caught."

Finally, Puckett found the limits of either and achieved or when, last Sept. 6, in a suburban bar-restaurant called the Redstone American Grill, he allegedly pulled a woman into the men's room. She says it was against her will, and so was what followed.

So it is that Kirby Puckett, one whale of a ballplayer, goes on trial for false imprisonment and criminal sexual assault on March 24, a week before the baseball season opens. His lawyers have been protesting that this happened—the arrest and indictment—only because he's Kirby Puckett. Well, yes, for sure, although maybe not the way the lawyers mean that.

Oscar Wilde, a cynic, observed, "The Americans are certainly hero worshipers and always take their heroes from the criminal classes." But what did Wilde really know about us? It may be more cause and effect: It's not where we find our heroes, but where we lead them. In the final analysis.

Puckett was all the easier for Minnesota to love, because of where he came from and because of where he stayed. He was born, one of nine children, in the meanest Chicago projects, turf once stigmatized as "the place where hope died." But he rose gamely above his circumstances, left an assembly line at the Ford plant to go to college and was drafted by the Twins in 1982. Then he won the hearts of the Twin Cities, perhaps as much for simply settling there as for his glorious ballpark achievements.

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