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Kirby Puckett dies at 45

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(AP) - Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, the buoyant, barrel-shaped outfielder with the perpetual smile who led the Minnesota Twins to two World Series titles in a five-year span, died Monday at an Arizona hospital.

      Puckett, whose weight gain in recent years had concerned friends and former teammates, died after suffering a stroke early Sunday at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 45.

Puckett inducted into the Hall
Kirby Puckett was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001.
Photo by HENNY RAY ABRAMS/AFP/Getty Images

      He's survived by his children, Catherine and Kirby Jr., and his ex-wife, Tonya.

       Puckett died at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix.

  Puckett had been in intensive care at the hospital, where he was moved after having surgery at Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn. His family, friends and former teammates had gathered at the hospital throughout the day Monday.

      "The entire Minnesota Twins organization is saddened by the loss of Twins great Kirby Puckett," the team said in a statement.

      Team owner Carl Pohlad said, "This is a sad day for the Minnesota Twins, Major League Baseball and baseball fans everywhere."

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      The hospital said Puckett was given last rites and died Monday afternoon.

  "On behalf of Major League Baseball, I am terribly saddened by the sudden passing of Kirby Puckett," commissioner Bud Selig said. "He was a Hall of Famer in every sense of the term.

      "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," he said.

      Earlier in the day, the atmosphere was somber at the teams training camp in Fort Myers, Fla. "Tough day," former Twins manager Tom Kelly said.

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      Former outfielder Tony Oliva said, "Our mind isn't on the ballfield. It's on Kirby."

      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 before an eye problem cut short his career in 1996.

      Though his power numbers weren't exceptional - 207 home runs and 1,085 RBIs - Puckett was voted into Cooperstown on the first ballot in 2001. His respect and enthusiasm for the game factored in as much his .318 average, 1989 batting title, six Gold Gloves, 10 All-Star game appearances and two championship rings.

      He made his mark on baseball's biggest stage, leading heavy underdog Minnesota to an unlikely seven-game victory over St. Louis in 1987 and then doing the same against Atlanta in one of the most thrilling Series in history in 1991.

      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.

I wore one uniform in my career and I'm proud to say that. I've always tried to play the game the right way. I thought I did pretty good with the talent that I have.

      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 in the bottom of the 11th to force 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."

      His 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 only 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 center fielder with a strong arm and a flair for nifty catches despite a 5-foot-9, 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 that preceded his 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.

      "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."

      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.

Puckett's Hall of Fame plaque
Kirby Puckett's plaque, which hangs in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame

      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.

  Puckett was elected to the Hall of Fame on his first try in 2001 and thrilled the crowd in Cooperstown when he said, "I'm telling you, anything is possible" during his induction speech.

      His plaque praised his "ever-present smile and infectious exuberance."

      Though he refused to talk pessimistically about the premature end of 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 Twin Cities restaurant.

Puckett jersey
An autographed Kirby Puckett jersey hangs in Hubert's, a sports bar across the street from the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

      He kept a low profile after the trial and eventually moved to Arizona. His relationship with the organization ended in 2002, but the Twins kept trying to re-establish a connection and get him to come to spring training again as a guest instructor.

      Puckett put on considerable weight, as well.

      "We were all concerned. We would tell him. But he enjoyed life. He enjoyed the size he was. That's who he was," said former Twins and current Chicago Cubs outfielder Jacque Jones, who never played with Puckett but was one of the many who considered him a mentor.

      Tony Oliva was concerned about Puckett's condition, too.

      "The last few times I saw him, he kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger," Oliva said Sunday after learning about the stroke. "And we worried about him."

"It's a tough thing to see a guy go through something like that and come to this extent," former teammate Kent Hrbek said Monday night.

      "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."

      Funeral services were pending.

             (Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)