I wish I could say I felt sadder when I heard the news that Kirby Puckett died on Monday after suffering a stroke over the weekend. A superstar whose career I enjoyed immensely, forced to retire before his time due to glaucoma, elected to the Hall of Fame despite his foreshortened career, then taken from us at age 44 — this one has all the ingredients of a three-hanky movie. A three-Homer Hanky movie, even. But there’s a bitter taste in my mouth right now, and it’s Puckett who put it there.
Make no mistake about it: Kirby Puckett was one hell of a ballplayer. A 5′8″, 210-pound centerfielder, Puckett packed a ton of athleticism and style into that roly-poly package, exuding such an infectious enthusiasm that you couldn’t help but smile anytime you watched him. If you didn’t take joy in watching Puckett play, then you didn’t like baseball.
In his 12-year career, all with the Twins, Puckett hit .318/.360/.477, bashing out 2,304 hits and 207 home runs, reaching the 200-hit plateau five times, making 10 All-Star teams, winning six Gold Gloves, and leading the Twins to not one but two improbable World Championships. Most memorable was Game Six of the 1991 Series; with the Twins trailing the Braves three games to two, Puckett had a game for the ages, scaling the centerfield plexiglass to make a spectacular catch off of a Ron Gant drive in the third inning and going 3-4 with an RBI triple, a sac fly, and a walk-off homer in the 11th frame to force Game Seven. “And we’ll see you tomorrow night!” went Jack Buck’s memorable play-by-play call as the ball sailed into the seats.
Puckett was well on his way to 3,000 hits and a plaque in Cooperstown when he awoke one spring morning in 1996 suffering from blurred vision in his right eye. He was diagnosed with glaucoma and forced to retire at 35. It was a sad day for baseball, especially so since Puckett seemed nowhere near ready to cede the stage; in the strike-shortened 1994 and 1995 seasons, he’d combined for 43 homers and 211 RBI while batting .315/.371/.526.
Still, when Puckett’s name made it onto the 2001 Hall of Fame ballot, it didn’t look as though he’d have the numbers to gain election. But he got over on personality; the generation of writers who’d lionized him not only admired the way he played, but also the off-field deeds that netted him the 1993 Branch Rickey Award for community service, the 1996 Roberto Clemente Man of the Year Award, and an induction into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame in 2000. It didn’t hurt that he had a great rapport with those gatekeepers to immortality, either. Puckett received 82.1 percent of the vote, only twelve fewer votes than former teammate Dave Winfield, who had 3,110 hits and 465 homers on his resume. So much for nice guys finishing last.
And so much for waiting for all the facts to come in. The good-guy image that Puckett cultivated throughout his career began taking serious hits soon after his induction. His wife Tonya filed for divorce in early 2002, two months after she told police he threatened to kill her during an argument. Prior to that, she had laid out a pattern of years of mistreatment to police, alleging that her husband had pointed a cocked gun to her head, tried to strangle her with an electrical cord, locked her in a basement, and used a power saw to cut through a door behind which she’d locked herself.
Through a private investigator, Tonya Puckett also discovered that her husband had carried on an 18-year-long affair with one Laura Nygren. Nygren herself obtained a temporary order of protection after being threatened by Puckett once the affair was exposed. She also said that Puckett told her of a female Twins employee filing a sexual harassment claim against him and that a settlement between Puckett, the Twins, and the employee had settled just prior to his Hall of Fame induction.
It got worse. In the fall of 2002, Puckett was charged with false imprisonment, fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct, and fifth-degree assault. Allegedly, he dragged a woman into a restaurant bathroom, pushed her into a stall, and grabbed her breast. The case went to trial and he was cleared of the charges despite several witnesses to the incident.
That’s an ugly litany of misdeeds, and just because Puckett was never convicted of any crime doesn’t mean they should be swept under the rug. It’s impossible to discount the allegations against him when one considers the low frequency with which sexual assault and spousal abuse cases are brought to justice, the impact Puckett’s celebrity may have had on the various proceedings, and the general culture of athletes and their, um, affairs off the field. He may have been innocent of the particular charges brought against him, but the pattern of complaints about his behavior was undeniable.
Back in December, when I was reviewing the 2006 Hall of Fame ballot at Baseball Prospectus, I mentioned Puckett in connection with Albert Belle’s Hall of Fame case. Like Puckett, Belle had a short but dominant career that ended prematurely due to health reasons. But unlike Puckett, Belle wasn’t a threat to win any humanitarian awards; he was loathed by the press and the feeling was mutual. Here’s what I wrote:
Belle was no choirboy, as his several clashes with fans and media reveal, but consider the case of perceived nice guy Kirby Puckett, whose own JAWS credentials (91.9 career WARP3/61.8 peak/76.9 JAWS) fall short of Belle’s [88.5/ 73.3/ 80.9], and whose off-the-field behavior was — allegedly — much worse. Should one be in the Hall and the other outside based on a popularity contest whose results were decided too early?
Of course, Belle’s recent arrest for stalking his ex-girlfriend brings him closer to Puckett territory, not further, but that’s not my point.
My point is that we all bought Kirby Puckett’s act because he was an amazing player between the baselines, and we wanted to believe he was just as amazing a human being off the field as the press clippings said. We cheered even harder when Kirby got his due, only to realize later that one could field a starting nine with the skeletons in his closet. In an era where we’ve made a routine habit of knocking yesteryear’s heroes off their pedestals with alarming speed — Goodbye, Mark McGwire! So long, Sammy Sosa! Get bent, Jose Canseco! — Puckett’s transgressions went far beyond the alleged chemically-enhanced gamesmanship of those pilloried sluggers.
That’s a harsh reality to square even with the fondest of memories of his playing days. And it compounds what was already a senselessly premature death into a complete and total bummer. I’m sad for the premature demise of a player who once thrilled us, but I’m sadder still for what Puckett took from us.