Puckett's fall from grace tough to reconcile

Jim Caple writes it's hard not to have conflicting emotions for Kirby Puckett after covering the former Twins great.

Originally Published: April 16, 2003
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

I covered Kirby Puckett and the Twins for many years, so when Sports Illustrated ran its cover story, "The Secret Life of Kirby Puckett,'' last month, my editors asked me to write my thoughts heading into his trial for sexual assault. I refrained. For one thing, I didn't think it appropriate to deliver my opinion before the jury did. Mostly though, even after the jury found him not guilty (which is not the same thing as being found innocent), I'm still trying to sort out my feelings about the Puckett I knew and the Puckett I didn't.

What do I think of Puckett after all the stories of the past year? I'm not sure. He delivered a great amount of joy to a great number of people, the vast majority of whom he never met. He also delivered grief to his wife with his now well-publicized philandering. How do you square so much public good with the private bad?

Kirby Puckett
Kirby Puckett, with his attorney, was cleared of sexual assault charges earlier this month.

I don't know. The fact is, I don't know what to feel about Puckett except deep concern.

His friends are worried about him, too. Always heavy (but back then, it was mostly muscle), Puckett now is obese. He also is drinking too much, which is a terrible combination for anyone but especially for Puckett given that both his parents died of heart conditions.

"I'm scared to death for him,'' Twins third base coach Al Newman said. "I'm scared because of his health and about his frame of mind. He's a baseball man and the game that gave him everything -- the game that got him out of the Chicago ghetto -- is gone from him now. The people who loved him don't love him anymore. He's on an island by himself and he's trying to figure out how to get home.''

Newman and Puckett have been good friends since they were roommates with the Twins. Newman remembers when no one in Minnesota had a better reputation than Puckett. Now, kids come up to Newman's children at school and ask, "Your dad knows Kirby Puckett -- is Kirby a bad guy or not?''

"I wouldn't wish what happened to him on anybody,'' Newman said. "He's an icon of the state of Minnesota and he's been brought to his knees. How do you recover from that?''

After glaucoma abruptly forced Puckett's retirement in 1996, the Twins made him a vice president, a job that required him to go into the office only often enough to collect his fat paycheck. The Twins paid him $500,000 a year to be Kirby Puckett, which was enough back when Minnesota had almost nothing else to market. During one stretch, the only times they could fill the stadium were when they honored Puckett in some way (after they retired his jersey one year we joked that they would retire his pants the next season).

One year they sold a season-ticket package for $99 that included a bat personally signed by Puckett. The autographed bat was the real appeal to the package -- Kirby's name literally held more value than the games the Twins played.

That's all gone. Now, the Twins have Torii Hunter in center field, another championship banner and a whole new team worth embracing. There is no need for Kirby Puckett, whose name lost its value with the first accusations last year.

The team didn't abandon him, though, even during the scandal. With his trial still pending, they offered him a six-figure salary for a job that would require him to do little more than spend some time with the players in spring training and make limited public appearances. He turned it down.

It was harder than Puckett ever admitted for him to lose his career so suddenly. I wonder if it was even harder for him to lose his status as the ambassador of all that was good about Minnesota baseball. I wonder whether that has had anything to do with his destructive behavior over the past year or so.

"Somehow, we have to figure out something for him to do,'' Newman said. "There has to be something to help him get back into the game.''

I covered Puckett on an almost daily basis as a Twins beat writer from 1989-1993 and on a fairly regular basis for several more seasons after leaving the full-time beat. I may have written his name in more stories than anyone else ever did. I once wrote that a clubhouse was always a happier place when he was inside it. I still believe that.

Just as I also now know that Puckett could also be a louse off the field.

Not that he is the only person -- in baseball or general society or the White House -- to cheat on a spouse. Should I hold him to a different standard than I did the president? Than I do other players who have not had their dirty laundry aired in public? How many accusations of violence should I believe about a man who never showed the slightest anger in my presence? How do I feel about Kirby Puckett, a man who made me smile for so many years and now has left me shaking my head? Like a lot of people, I'm not sure. He is by no means a victim -- make no mistake, he brought this on himself. No one forced him to cheat on his wife, no one forced him to do anything.

But that doesn't mean I don't feel for him.

Because almost everyone involved was drinking (and some drinking heavily), we'll probably never know exactly what happened that night in the restaurant. All I know for certain is that Puckett needs to get some help and I hope he gets it before it's too late.

Boxscore lines of the week
Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez have won a combined 12 Cy Youngs. The only seasons in the past dozen that one of the three has not won the award were 1996 and 1998. The three were a combined 60-15 with a 2.37 ERA and 691 strikeouts last season.

So what are the odds that all three would be the first three pitchers to allow 10 runs in a game -- and that they would do it during a four-day stretch?

Well, consider it this way. Pedro had never allowed that many runs in a game his entire career until last Saturday when the Orioles scored 10 against him in four innings. The day after he allowed his previous career-high -- nine runs in July, 1999 -- he went on the disabled list.

Their lines:

Maddux: 5.2 IP, 12 H, 10 R, 7 ER, 2 BB, 3 K

Johnson: 4.2 IP, 10 H, 10 R, 10 ER, 2 BB, 4 K

Martinez: 4.1 IP, 9 H, 10 R, 10 ER, 4 BB, 5 K

And if you think all that was strange, consider that in two of Maddux's first three starts, Atlanta lost by scores of 17-1 and 16-2.

Lies, damn lies and statistics
Four incidents of fans running onto the field in one game? Another fan attacking someone on the field? Does the security at Comiskey Park do anything? Not that the record is much better at Wrigley Field, where fans battled with the Los Angeles bullpen a couple seasons ago and where a fan attacked Randy Myers on the mound several years back. ... It took Tigers manager Alan Trammell 10 games before he finally won his first, just off the record pace of 13 games by Washington's Mal Kittredge in 1904. Kittredge was 1-16 when the Senators dumped him as manager (he remained their catcher). You could bet that was a bad year for Washington. The Senators went 38-113, finished 55½ games out of first place, hit 10 home runs and drew 131,000 fans. ... Meanwhile, it took Torii Hunter until Minnesota's 11th game before he scored a run and Houston's Lance Berkman 11 games to drive in a run. ... Thirteen games into the season, the Diamondbacks are 10 games behind the Giants, have yet to get a win from Randy Johnson or Curt Schilling and now Johnson is hurt. ... A tip of the cap to Roger Kahn for canceling his scheduled appearance at Cooperstown in protest over the Hall of Fame's decision to cancel a "Bull Durham'' celebration because of anti-war statements from Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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