I wrote this several years ago:
March 28, 1996
The concern over Kirby Puckett in the spring of 1996 was starting to change to optimism. Puckett took a Dennis Martinez pitch to the jaw at the end of the 1995 season, and there was some fear among Twins’ fans that Puckett may never be the same.
Spring training 1996 was a chance for Puckett to show that he was the same hitter he had always been. The spring numbers seemed to foreshadow another great season for Puckett. That all changed one day before the team planned to break camp.
On Thursday morning, March 28, Puckett woke up with a strange spot in the middle of his vision on the right side, and everything seemed just a bit blurry. From Jim Souhan’s story a few days later in the Star Tribune:
Puckett sounded doubtful that he will be able to play on Monday, when the Twins will open the season at the Metrodome against the Detroit Tigers.
“My right eye is my dominant eye,” he said. “If it was my left eye, then I think I’d be able to hit. But I need my right eye. I can’t hit right now. I’ll have to wait and see what happens.”
Puckett was placed on the 15-day disabled list, and all indication suggested that he would return when that time was up, April 12. As the date approached, it became more clear that Puckett’s vision problem was not going away as soon as expected.
The saga played out through the first half of the Twins’ 1996 season. Puckett was eventually diagnosed with glaucoma, and the severity was such that he ultimately retired from baseball in July.
Souhan, Jim. “Vision problems might keep Puckett from Twins’ opener” Star Tribune 3/29/1996.
Kirby Puckett retirement, though sudden and unexpected, ended up being a hero’s retirement in Minnesota. His career, though cut short, was good enough to get him elected into the Hall of Fame in 2001. For Twins fans, it would be nice if that is where the Kirby Puckett story ended.
That’s not where it ended, however. Frank DeFord detailed the sad facts and allegations in his 2003 Sports Illustrated report.
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?
While the story caused a bit of an uproar of defensiveness and denial among Twins fans, it was difficult even for the most ardent Puckett supporter to dismiss the allegations altogether. Kirby Puckett died after suffering a stroke in March of 2006, just before his 46th birthday. The public ceremony, though attended by some 15,000 at the Metrodome, was an awkward event in which baseball accomplishments were celebrated and speeches focused on a public image that was very much at odds with the picture of Puckett that the allegations painted.
Puckett’s legacy is still an uncomfortable one, particularly for people like me who grew up watching him play; who fell in love with baseball in part because of the enthusiasm that he exuded on the field.