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 Monday 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 Monday 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 Monday 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 RBIs, 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.
The Twins returned to the Metrodome that year after losing 14-5 in Game 5, needing to win two straight to get the trophy. Puckett famously walked into the clubhouse hours before Game 6, cajoling his teammates to jump on his back and let him carry them to victory.
Sure enough, after robbing Ron Gant of an extra-base hit with a leaping catch against the wall in the third inning, Puckett homered off Charlie Leibrandt to send the Series to Game 7.
"There are a lot of great players in this game, but only one Kirby," pitcher Rick Aguilera said when Puckett announced his retirement. "It was his character that meant more to his teammates. He brought a great feeling to the clubhouse, the plane, everywhere."
Puckett's best year was 1988, when he batted .356 with 24 home runs, 42 doubles and 121 RBIs. A contact hitter and stolen base threat in the minors who hit a total of four homers in his first two major league seasons, Puckett developed a power stroke in 1986 and went deep a career-best 31 times.
He became a fixture in the third spot in Minnesota's lineup, a free-swinging outfielder with a strong arm and a flair for nifty catches despite his 220-pound frame that made him look more like a fullback. The man known simply as "Puck" was immensely popular. Fans loved his style, especially the high leg kick he used as he prepared to swing. Public address announcer Bob Casey, who became a close friend, introduced him with vigor before every at-bat, "KIR-beeeeeeeeee PUCK-it."
As free agency and expansion turned over rosters more frequently in the 1990s, Puckett was one of the rare stars who never switched teams.
Hit by a pitch that broke his jaw on his last at-bat of the 1995 season, Puckett woke up one morning the following spring and couldn't see out of his right eye. It was eventually diagnosed as glaucoma, forcing him to call it quits that July.
He received baseball's Roberto Clemente Man of the Year Award for community service that year, and the Twins — trying to boost sagging attendance during some lean seasons in the late 1990s — frequently turned to Puckett-related promotions. He had a spot in the front office and sometimes made stops at the state Capitol to help stump for a new stadium.
Though he steadfastly refused to speak pessimistically about the premature end to his career, Puckett's personal life began to deteriorate after that. Shortly after his induction to Cooperstown, his then-wife, Tonya, accused him of threatening to kill her during an argument — he denied it — and described to police a history of violence and infidelity. In 2003, he was cleared of all charges from an alleged sexual assault of a woman at a suburban Twin Cities restaurant.
He kept a low profile after the trial and eventually moved to Arizona. The Twins kept trying to re-establish a connection and get him to come to spring training again as a guest instructor.
Puckett, who was divorced, is survived by his children, Catherine and Kirby Jr.