- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2006

MINNEAPOLIS — Kirby Puckett, the bubbly, barrel-shaped Hall of Famer who carried the Minnesota Twins to two World Series titles before his career was cut short by glaucoma, died yesterday after a stroke. He was 45.

Puckett, whose weight gain in recent years concerned those close to him, was stricken early Sunday at his Arizona home. He died at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix.

“He was a Hall of Famer in every sense of the term,” commissioner Bud Selig said. “He played his entire career with the Twins and was an icon in Minnesota. But he was revered throughout the country and will be remembered wherever the game is played. Kirby was taken from us much too soon — and too quickly.”

Puckett was the second-youngest person to die already a member of the Hall of Fame, Hall spokesman Jeff Idelson said. Only Lou Gehrig, at 37, was younger.

Puckett led the Twins to championships in 1987 and 1991. He broke into the majors in 1984 and had a career batting average of .318. Glaucoma left the six-time Gold Glove center fielder and 10-time All-Star with no choice but to retire after the 1995 season when he went blind in his right eye.

“I wore one uniform in my career, and I’m proud to say that,” Puckett once said. “As a kid growing up in Chicago, people thought I’d never do anything. I’ve always tried to play the game the right way. I thought I did pretty good with the talent that I have.”

He was elected to the Hall of Fame on his first try in 2001, and his plaque praised his “ever-present smile and infectious exuberance.” Yet, out of the game, the 5-foot-8 Puckett let himself fall out of shape.

“It’s a tough thing to see a guy go through something like that and come to this extent,” former teammate Kent Hrbek said.

“That’s what really hurt him bad, when he was forced out of the game,” he said. “I don’t know if he ever recovered from it.”

Asked what he would remember the most from their playing days, Hrbek quickly answered, “Just his smile, his laughter and his love for the game.”

Puckett had been in intensive care since having surgery at another hospital. His family, friends and former teammates gathered yesterday at St. Joseph’s. He was given last rites and died in the afternoon, hospital spokeswoman Kimberly Lodge said.

Puckett wanted his organs to be donated. In a statement, his family and friends thanked his fans for their thoughts and prayers.

“It’s tough to take,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan said from the team’s spring training camp in Fort Myers, Fla. “He had some faults, we knew that, but when all was said and done he would treat you as well as he would anyone else. No matter who you were.

“When you’re around him, he makes you feel pretty good about yourself. He can make you laugh. He can do a lot of things that can light up a room. He’s a beauty,” he said.

A makeshift memorial began to form last night outside the Metrodome, with a handful of bouquets laid on the sidewalk.

“This is a sad day for the Minnesota Twins, Major League Baseball and baseball fans everywhere,” Twins owner Carl Pohlad said.

Puckett’s signature performance came in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series against Atlanta. After telling anyone who would listen before the game that he would lead the Twins to victory that night at the Metrodome, he made a leaping catch against the fence and then hit a game-ending homer in the 11th inning to force a seventh game.

The next night, Minnesota’s Jack Morris went all 10 innings to outlast John Smoltz and pitch the Twins to a 1-0 win for their second championship in five years.

“If we had to lose and if one person basically was the reason — you never want to lose — but you didn’t mind it being Kirby Puckett. When he made the catch and when he hit the home run you could tell the whole thing had turned,” Smoltz said.

“His name just seemed to be synonymous with being a superstar,” the Braves’ pitcher said. “It’s not supposed to happen like this.”

Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk echoed Smoltz’s sentiment.

“There was no player I enjoyed playing against more than Kirby. He brought such joy to the game. He elevated the play of everyone around him,” Fisk said in a statement to the Hall.

Puckett’s birthdate was frequently listed as March 14, 1961, but recent research by the Hall of Fame indicated he was born a year earlier.

Perhaps the most popular athlete ever to play in Minnesota, Puckett was a guest coach at Twins spring training camp in 1996 but hadn’t worked for the team since 2002. He kept a low profile since being cleared of assault charges in 2003, when he was accused of groping a woman at a suburban Twin Cities restaurant.

The youngest of nine children born into poverty in a Chicago housing project, Puckett was drafted by the Twins in 1982 and became a regular just two years later. He got four hits in his first major league start and finished with 2,304 in only 12 seasons.

Though his power numbers, 207 home runs and 1,085 RBI, weren’t exceptional, Puckett won an AL batting title in 1989 and was considered one of the best all-around players of his era. His esteem and enthusiasm for the game factored into his Hall of Fame election as much as his statistics and championship rings.

He made his mark on baseball’s biggest stage, leading heavy underdog Minnesota to a seven-game victory over St. Louis in 1987 and then doing the same against Atlanta in one of the most thrilling Series in history.

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