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.
“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.
“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.
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