The storied and nearly mythical career of the greatest Twin in club history came to a bitter end on Friday when, on a day perfect for playing baseball, Kirby Puckett's right eye gave out on him a final time.
After a morning surgery to remove blood from Puckett's hemorrhaging right eye - the fourth procedure performed by Dr. Bert Glaser since April 17 - Glaser viewed Puckett's glaucoma-damaged retina and determined that the 10-time all-star's vision would not return.Six hours later, Puckett, whose vision in this right eye is 20/400, was sitting at a podium inside the Metrodome announcing his retirement from the game he played like a magician.
"I just got through telling Kent Hrbek that the last time I was in (this room) he was doing this," said Puckett, 35, who will be $7 million for next season on the last year of his contract. "Herbie said this room wasn't easy, and he's right. ...
"Today was a day I was not looking forward to, but some things happen and there's no reason for them. Somebody gave me this. ... Things just happen."
For Puckett, they began happening on March 28 when, one day after getting two hits off of Atlanta superstar Greg Maddux during an exhibition game, he awoke with a black dot impeding the vision in his right eye. When the dot went away, the vision remained blurry.
Puckett was directed to Glaser, a retinal specialist, through Puckett's agent, Ron Shapiro. Glaser diagnosed Puckett with glaucoma and, eventually, performed three laser surgeries.
Glaser said that he became especially concerned about a week and a half ago, when blood continued to seep into Puckett's retina, and he scheduled Friday's surgery.
"Today, I performed ocular surgery on Kirby Puckett," said Glaser, who also attended Friday's news conference. "This surgery was performed to counteract the blinding effects of central retinal vein occlusion . . .
"From the start, we knew this would be a difficult battle."
And in the end, it was one of the few battles in the past decade that Puckett, a player who had never even been on the disabled list, couldn't win. The surgery ended about 11 a.m. Friday. Glaser gave Puckett about 30 minutes to wake up and then, in a sterile Baltimore hospital, they began the discussion that would rock the Twins' organization.
Glaser, Puckett, Puckett's wife Tonya, Puckett's agent Ron Shapiro and Michael Maas, an associate of Shapiro, huddled in the hospital, and Glaser delivered the bad news.
"It's always a tough thing to do," Glaser said softly.
Their session lasted about 20 minutes, and then Shapiro telephoned Twins' general manager Terry Ryan, telling him that the news was not good and that the group would be boarding a plane for the Twin Cities. Schedule a news conference, Shapiro told Ryan without delivering specifics.
Shortly before the 5:30 news conference, Ryan and the Twins then learned the details.
"I was holding out hope," Ryan said. "No one wanted to see him out of the game. Unless you had a medical background, you didn't always know everything that was going on. But occasionally, they'd tell you something that would give you hope that he would be able to come back."
Ryan, Glaser, Shapiro, Maas, Twins owner Carl Pohlad, president Jerry Bell, manager Tom Kelly and physician L.J. Michienzi joined Kirby and Tonya Puckett at the head table.
Puckett, who has jokingly referred to himself as "One-Eyed Jack" in the clubhouse for the past several weeks, wore a patch over his right eye, as well as sunglasses. Tonya Puckett, choking up on several occasions, also wore sunglasses.
The entire Twins team also filed into the news conference shortly before it began, and several players couldn't hold back their tears.
"It was a pleasure for me and every other Twins' fan, and baseball fans, to be able to sit and watch every game he played," an emotional Kelly said. "How lucky am I?
Who could ever forget the moments? The 1991 World Series catch in Game 6. The 10 consecutive All-Star appearances. The cackles. The grins. The big home runs and bigger RBIs.
Puckett is the only Twin ever to hit .300, get 200 hits, score 100 runs and drive in 100 runs in a season twice in his career, doing it in both 1988 and 1992. He was the Most Valuable Player of the 1993 All-Star game. And, of course, he almost literally picked the Twins up on his back and carried them to World Series victories in 1987 and 1991.
And, of course, May 8, 1984, when he collected four hits against the California Angels in his first major league game.
"He was sitting in the dugout the next day - I was sitting next to him - and Reggie Jackson came over," said Tom Mee, the club's former media relations director. "Reggie leans against the dugout and says, `You're the new kid?' And Reggie proceeded to tell him everything about being a big leaguer, like what pitches to look for.
"He said, `In the minor leagues, you get a pitch to hit every at-bat. Here, you're going to get only one a game, and you've got to make sure you don't let that one go by.' He spent 10 minutes talking to him."
Puckett listened. He finishes his career with 2,304 hits, 1,071 runs, 3,453 total bases and 414 doubles, all No. 1 on the Twins' all-time list. His .318 career batting average ranks only behind Rod Carew's .334 on the Twins all-time list. And his 1,085 RBIs rank only behind Harmon Killebrew's 1,325 and Kent Hrbek's 1,086 in Twins' history.
Those numbers, along with his dominating presence in baseball throughout his time, should quality him for the Hall of Fame in five years.
"I just do what I can do - you guys vote for that stuff," Puckett said. "I know I came out every time and played the game right. Other than that, it's up to you guys.
"If I get in, I get in. If I don't, I don't."
Looking out toward his teammates in the overcrowded room at one point, Puckett said: "The world is not over, guys. I can see out of my left eye. I saved my money good. I want to thank everybody here - T.K., Aggie (Rick Aguilera) . . . I love all you guys. I want you to go out tonight, and you know what you've got to do. If you don't win, I don't want to talk to you."
While Puckett tried to keep things as light as he could, the sad occasion was marked by some frank talk as well.
"You can't prepare for everything in life," Puckett acknowledged. "You can't prepare for this. It happened. I'm dealing with it.
"I still have 20/20 vision in my left eye. I can see my beautiful wife and kids.
"That's why I've joked every day. When I come to the park every day, I'm living out my dream."
Puckett thanked his wife, Pohlad, Bell and the rest of the Twins, as well as his teammates.
"This is a tough day for me," Puckett said. "I can't lie to you and say I'm not going to miss it because I am. I've missed it since March 28...
"This is the last time you're going to see Kirby Puckett in a Twins' uniform. I just want to tell you that I love you all so much."
Later, he added: "I can't say thank you enough to everybody who prayed for me. I want to tell all the little kids that just because I can't see out of my right eye, that doesn't mean God doesn't answer prayers.
"He answers them. I can see out of my left eye. I'm still alive."
Shortly afterward, Kirby Puckett, the Lou Gehrig of the 1990s, slipped an arm around his wife and headed toward their car, and the first day of his post-baseball life.