The Secret Life Of Kirby Pucket (Very long, but very interesting)
The secret life of Kirby Puckett
His wife says she spent years helping build the Hall of Famer's image as a humanitarian and role model … until one fateful day. Before long, she would change the way the world looked at a Minnesota icon.
BY BOB SANSEVERE
The mythical life of Kirby Puckett began to unravel by accident. It happened a year ago, when his wife walked into their Edina home and overheard the most popular athlete in Minnesota history talking on the bedroom phone.
Tonya Puckett picked up an extension and listened.
What she heard shocked and angered her.
There was another woman.
That the former Twin could be having an affair would not make him unique in society and certainly not in the athletic world. That this former Twin could be cheating on this wife would end not only their relationship, but the image of Kirby as a role model and humanitarian she had worked so hard to shape.
It began a series of events that now has his life at a crossroads. Once voted Baseball's Best Role Model and Friendliest Player in a 1993 Baseball America reader survey, Puckett has spent the last year facing accusations not only of womanizing, but violence, and he faces a February trial on charges of felony false imprisonment and gross misdemeanor sexual conduct for an October incident. His job status with the Twins is in limbo after two decades with the franchise. And his divorce from Tonya, she says, is just a signature away from completion.
Looking back, Tonya describes a man she says she loved but sometimes feared, a portrayal repeated by a woman who says she was his mistress for 18 years.
"Kirby," says Laura Nygren, "is not the person everyone thinks he is."
What we knew of Kirby Puckett on the field, we could see for ourselves. Much of what we knew about Kirby Puckett off the field, Tonya Puckett says, she helped create.
"People have an idea of what and who Kirby Puckett was,'' Tonya says. "People would see only what Kirby and I wanted them to see.''
She spent their 16-year marriage promoting Kirby's decency, crafting his reputation as a soft touch for charities. While Kirbywas establishing himself as baseball's most beloved performer, a Hall of Fame talent and two-time World Series hero whose smile made him lovable and girth made him huggable, she worked to broaden his appeal beyond the game.
"I feel like Kirby went out and played ball and made a living," Tonya says. "My job was raising my children and being a wife and doing everything to build him up in the community and make it happen.
"If people looked at Kirby and thought he was doing good in the community, I was a reflection of him and he was a reflection of me; it didn't matter what other people knew."
They also knew very little about the secret life of Kirby Puckett.
"I don't know what Kirby's private life was off the field," says former Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek, who combined with Puckett to lead Minnesota to the 1987 and 1991 World Series championships. "I never did anything off the field with him. He was a bubbly figure on the field, and everybody thought Kirby and Herbie were joined at the hip. At the ballpark, as soon as the game was over, we went our separate ways.''
Kirby Puckett was a man of honor and honors. The 1993 Branch Rickey Award for service to his community. The 1996 Roberto Clemente Man of the Year Award. The 2000 World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame induction.
The public didn't know Tonya was a force behind a $250,000 endowment gift in 1994 to the University of Minnesota to set up the Kirby and Tonya Puckett Scholarship Program.
"She is very committed to this,'' says Jerry Fisher, president and chief operating officer of the University of Minnesota Foundation that annually awards the scholarships. "She has been a full participant and put a lot of energy into it. She's an idea machine. I just love her energy."
And the public didn't know Tonya did much of the heavy lifting for the annual celebrity pool tournament that bore Puckett's name and raised $4 million for Children's HeartLink over 11 years.
"I think Tonya clearly played much more of lead role in terms of organizing and committee meetings," Twins president Dave St. Peter said. "Kirby did a lot of work, but Tonya probably was more involved."
"She spearheaded everything," said Diane Solmonson, director of special events for Children's HeartLink.
When the pool tournament first started, Tonya says, she thumbed through the yellow pages to find potential sponsors. She oversaw virtually everything, including the table decorations and entertainment for the big dinner that accompanied the event. She even stuffed boxes for giveaways during the event.
"My role was the community involvement and work in the community,'' says Tonya. "Yes, Kirby gets the claps, but I know in my heart what I do and people who know me know what I do. I didn't need the claps."
Tonya and Kirby succeeded in promoting Kirby as a role model. Kirby even wrote a children's book in 1993 titled "Kirby Puckett: Be the Best You Can Be."
"My parents taught me to always treat others how we want to be treated," Puckett wrote. "Nobody wants things stolen from them, wants to get hurt or hear unkind words. So don't you do these things to others."
Kirby also wrote that Tonya was one of the people "who give me the love and support I need to be the best I can be." However, once Tonya heard Kirby on the phone with another woman that day, Dec. 13, 2001, everything changed. Despite Kirby's denial that anything improper was going on, Tonya hired a private investigator at the urging of a close friend. Soon, Tonya was told that her husband had entered affairs with a number of women.
"In the beginning, I was absolutely devastated," Tonya says. "I loved him so much. I was one of those people who didn't think I could live without him. It's like you're in this tunnel and it's so dark and you can't see. And one day you wake up and you see light. You keep following this light."
Two days after she caught Kirby on the phone with the mystery woman, Tonya claims, Kirby threatened in a phone call that he "was going to kill me." Tonya told the private investigator, who advised her to call the Edina police so there would be a record of her allegation. When she did, six days later, on Dec. 21, 2001, Tonya gave police an account of the latest incident and laid out a pattern of violent behavior by Puckett — although none of it recent — over the course of their marriage, according to the police report.
She told of Kirby putting a cocked gun to her head as she held their then-2-year-old daughter.
She told of Kirby trying to strangle her with an electrical cord.
She told of Kirby locking her in the basement.
She told of Kirby using a power saw to cut through a door.
Kirby denied all the allegations to police, saying they argued after Tonya threatened to keep him from seeing their two adopted children again. Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar declined to file a felony complaint because the alleged threat came on a long-distance call from Atlantic City, making it hard to prove Tonya was in imminent danger. Edina city attorney Marsh Halberg declined to file a misdemeanor complaint because Tonya waited six days to file her report and because the two participants were the only witnesses, and their stories were so conflicting.
Even though the courts were out of it, the police report went public three weeks after the alleged threat.
"I don't take back anything that I said," says Tonya, 37. "What I said to that officer was the absolute truth. When I talked to the officer, I had no idea that report would go any further and become public knowledge.
"What they ask you is: Why would you be afraid? They say: Why would you have reason to be afraid? I beat around the bush, then I spilled my guts. I thought it was in confidence. How naive I was. I had no idea it would get to Amy Klobuchar's eyes and I would have people looking at me and thinking, 'She made this up to hurt him.' I have never and would never.
"If that was the case, I could have called police on Kirby a million times and his image would have been tarnished."
That is exactly what Kirby Puckett is facing now.
"I don't really know if the damage is permanent,'' said Robert Zalk, Kirby Puckett's divorce attorney. "Obviously, a lot of things that were raised were allegations, which he denies.
"Whether that can ever be communicated effectively is hard to say."
KEEPING A LOW PROFILE
Kirby Puckett is keeping to himself these days. Sometimes by his choice, sometimes by others'.
Asked to discuss how his life has changed in the past year, Puckett, 42, responded by saying, "My life has changed?" When his divorce proceedings were mentioned, he replied, "I'm not the first guy in the world to get a divorce."
Beyond those brief comments, he declined to be interviewed for this story, other than to say, "You don't have to give me fairness. You write what you write. I've got nothing to say. You write your story. You do your job, man. You do what you got to do."
Puckett, who has lowered his public profile considerably in the past year, will show up on occasion at Target Center to watch the Timberwolves play. He ended his involvement in February with his pool tournament, the Kirby Puckett Eight-Ball Invitational. It went on last month with a new name, although Tonya told Children's HeartLink she wants to stay involved with the charity.
Puckett has stopped doing commercial endorsements for one of the tournament's primary sponsors, Peters Billiards, which is owned by his friend, Greg Peterson.
"The smartest thing is to keep a low profile until he gets through his personal problems," says Peterson. "As far as he and I are concerned, he's not about to go into the public eye until things are straightened out or he's gone through his situation."
Still, Peterson calls Puckett the "ultimate character spokesman" and tells a story about the day in November 2001 when Puckett walked up to the counter at Peters Billiards with a man in his early 20s.
"He said, 'Give my buddy a good deal,' " Peterson says. "Puck left, and the kid said he'd never met Kirby until they met at the cue stand a few minutes earlier. That's the kind of guy Kirby is. He'll pick up and talk to anybody. You have guys like Randy Moss come in here. He gets some cues and doesn't even raise his eyebrows. There's not a bit of conversation. But Kirby is just an incredible human."
Asked if he has noticed a change in Puckett's demeanor over the past year, Peterson says, "Anybody going through what he's going through isn't going to be as happy and jovial. He wants to get through it and over it."
"Kirby Puckett is an outgoing, friendly, gregarious person," says Jerry Bell, president of the holding company that owns the Twins. "The last year or so has been a trying time for him. His issues with his wife and all have kind of altered that a little. I noticed he seems a little less effervescent than he has been. It's kind of natural, going through the divorce and everything."
Though he held a $500,000-a-year job as a team executive vice president and symbol of all that was supposed be good about the Twins, Puckett wasn't asked to throw out a ceremonial first pitch or be honored before any of the team's playoff games at the Metrodome this past October. He was practically hidden away by the team, whose address, by the way, is 34 Kirby Puckett Place.
Puckett's contract as a vice president expired earlier this month, and, although the Twins say they still have plans for him in a reduced role, Puckett recently told Tonya the team "let him go." That, apparently, is news to the Twins.
"We don't feel that way. I think he might feel that way,'' Bell says. "We tried to restructure his deal. We have to do that, no question about that.''
Bell says the Twins simply want to change his role, and Puckett asked for time to think about it. He would continue helping out at spring training and be available as needed, but he no longer would be asked to serve as a full-time goodwill ambassador, making numerous public appearances. Since Tonya's allegations broke, that part of his role had been curtailed, anyway.
If Puckett declines the Twins' offer, it would end a 20-year relationship. In 1982, Minnesota drafted him in the first round out of Triton Junior College in River Grove, Ill. By 1984, he was already out of the minor leagues and playing for the parent club. In spring 1996, he was forced to retire as a player because of glaucoma in his right eye, and the Twins named him executive vice president of baseball later that year.
"Everywhere we went, everybody knew him," says Tom Kelly, who managed Puckett from 1987 until the player's retirement. "Everybody cheered for him. He wouldn't get booed like some of the other players. It was something to be part of and to see each and every night and day. He always was a pleasant influence in the clubhouse. He always was so positive about everything. He made the clubhouse a very enjoyable place to go to work.
"There was just a magnificent aura he had about himself. It was certainly the way he played. He had that charisma and could light up the place."
Kent Hrbek, the teammate most linked to Puckett during his playing days, says he couldn't tell you if that light stayed on once Puckett left the ballpark.
"All the stuff that came out last December with his wife, that was a shock to me, as well as a lot of people,'' Hrbek says. "Off the field, you've got to take care of your own house. Off the field, everybody went their own way. They might be robbing banks. I know the kid played center field as well as anybody and hit as well as anybody."
That ability brought Puckett a .318 lifetime batting average, 10 straight All-Star Game appearances, six Gold Gloves for fielding excellence and a first-ballot vote into baseball's Hall of Fame in 2001. The Cooperstown induction was supposed to be the storybook finish for a player who had overcome so much to get to that point. It was a feel-good tale for a player adored nationwide. After all, Puckett had used his baseball skills to escape the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, a row of dilapidated apartments buildings once described as "the place where hope dies." The youngest of William and Catherine Puckett's nine children, Puckett got his start in baseball by throwing a ball against a building.
"I taught myself how to throw a baseball," Puckett wrote in his 1993 children's book. "I drew a chalk strike zone on a wall and had fun playing 'strikeout' for hours. … I never played Little League because we didn't have any ball fields around us. Only miles of concrete and streets. But I'm not ashamed of where I grew up. It doesn't matter where you come from. What matters is where you want to go, and how hard you work to get there."
Yet the Hall of Fame induction became a sore point back home. There was some feeling that Puckett had turned his back on Chicago.
Johnny Butler, the athletic director at Calumet High School in Chicago, Puckett's alma mater, has followed Puckett's career from a distance. He wishes it didn't have to be that way. Puckett graduated from Calumet in 1979, and Butler has since tried a few times to get in touch with his school's most famous alumnus. Puckett has never gotten back to him.
Butler had hoped Puckett could attend a dinner for the school's Hall of Fame a few years back. Butler also hoped he could convince Puckett to set up a scholarship at Calumet or make a donation to the athletic program.
"It's a little disappointing," says Butler. "I've tried reaching him two or three times over the years. He didn't respond. If you don't respond, I'm not one to push the issue.
"I don't know what the situation is, but I just think it shouldn't be a situation where you have to ask. If a guy does well, without asking, he should make an effort to do a little something. Even if it's something like donating some bats from the team."
Butler says the last time he attempted to contact Puckett was shortly before his Baseball Hall of Fame induction. Butler says a Twin Cities television reporter visited Calumet for a story about Puckett, and Butler asked the reporter, who said he would be speaking to Puckett, to relay a message.
"I had seriously considered going to the induction," Butler says. "I sent word to him to call me. I left three numbers. Kirby never called. Based on what I knew of him, that was out of character.
"But you just don't know when you haven't been around a person."
Butler isn't the only one to criticize how Puckett deals with his hometown. In a Chicago Tribune story before Puckett's induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, several people complained that Puckett never responded to requests for things as simple as an 8-by-10 photograph.
"We got no response whatsoever,'' Derrick Hill of the Chicago Housing Authority told the Tribune of his group's attempt to get a photo of Puckett to hang in their offices.
"What do they want me to do?" Puckett told the Tribune. "I don't live in Chicago. I didn't play in Chicago. I speak very highly about making it out of the projects when I talk with people. … I can be an inspiration to everybody."
When it comes to how Puckett is perceived by some people in Chicago, even Tonya defends him.
"I would say that Kirby made a decision, really, when we met, that this was going to be his home,'' Tonya says now. "We did so many things in Minnesota. So much of our lives was devoted to community service here. No matter how much you give, it will never be enough."
AN 18-YEAR AFFAIR
Laura Nygren says she cannot stop thinking about Kirby Puckett and the pain of their time together. The 42-year-old St. Louis Park arts-and-crafts decorator says she met Puckett shortly after he joined the Twins in 1984 — even before Tonya knew him — and they began an 18-year sexual relationship that ended last February.
She ended the affair, Nygren says, because Puckett threatened her.
She is angry. Bitter.
"Just because we had consensual sex doesn't give him the right to hurt me," Nygren says. "No one has that right. He's done a number on me. He once told me I was damaged goods because I had a kid. Eighteen years of my life were wasted. In 18 years, we went to no dinners, no movies. There were no actual birthday or Christmas presents. He gave me money at Christmastime. After years of bugging him for a gift, he did buy me a vibrator one year.
"What Kirby thrived on were women who had low self-esteem, were overweight, on welfare and had kids. It's safe for him. He thinks we're thankful because nobody else will have us."
Nygren says they would meet covertly to have sex in various locations in and out of the area, including hotels, the Metrodome parking lot — even his Twins office. A few times in recent years, Nygren says, they would meet at 5:45 a.m. in his office, before other team employees arrived. St. Peter, the Twins president who had the office across the hall from Puckett for about a year and a half, says he was unaware of Puckett ever having sexual liaisons in the office.
Nygren says she used to feel hate and jealousy toward Tonya, who didn't have to sneak around to be with Puckett. Nygren and Tonya say they have met twice and spoken on the phone several times. Nygren now says, "I don't hate her. I feel sorry. I told her I'm so sorry." Nygren even backs up the notion that his wife was the reason Kirby was so charitable, saying, "It was all Tonya. She did all the (charity) work. He would show up and get the credit. Kirby said to me, 'I hate doing charity stuff.' … He said it all the time over the years. At least dozens of times, maybe more."
Puckett has never publicly addressed Nygren's statements. Nygren, on the other hand, will talk in great detail about her relationship with Puckett. She says she believed she was the only other woman intimately involved with Puckett besides Tonya. When she learned otherwise, from Tonya's private investigator, Nygren became the scorned ex-mistress and the relationship was permanently fractured.
She says she taped telephone conversations with Puckett during the last 18 months of their affair because she thought she might one day need to prove the depth of their relationship; she also kept copies of hotel receipts listed in the names of the Twins and Nygren — one from 1996 in Kansas City, one from 1998 from a hotel near the Metrodome — paid for, she says, by cash that Puckett had given her.
The tapes include mutual "I love you" declarations and explicit sexual talk. One tape, recorded on Valentine's Day 2002, contains the alleged threat from Puckett that led her to end the relationship: "I hope you're not setting me up, girl. … I just hope you're not setting me up, because I heard you were talking to Tonya. If I find out it was you that sold me out, you're in trouble, girl."
Nygren filed a report with St. Louis Park police after the phone conversation that day, alleging that this was a threat on her life. The police disagreed. No charges were filed against Puckett after Jay Forster, the police officer who met with Nygren, wrote in his report, "I found no evidence of any specific threat made by Puckett."
On March 19, Nygren contacted police again. In a St. Louis Park police report, Nygren alleged Puckett had made "a new threat to her. According to Nygren, she was informed by Puckett's wife, Tonya, that Puckett was having a conversation with another woman (name unknown) and indicated that he knew that someone had 'turned on him.' And that they were going to pay for it in the end. Nygren stated that this conversation took place approximately one week ago and that she believes that the person that Puckett was talking about was her.''
Nygren told police she planned to file an order for protection against Puckett, according to the report. On March 22, Nygren petitioned the family court division of Hennepin District Court for the order, in which she claimed, "Kirby forced sexual acts with me in his condominium. In the past, there have been other incidents where sexual abuse has occurred. Kirby has also pushed and shoved me to be in control." Nygren says she withdrew the petition and signed a private agreement with Puckett not to have contact with each other.
"It was a threat," Nygren says of Puckett's comment to her. "He didn't say, 'I'll (expletive) kill you,' but he said I'd be in big trouble. He meant he was going to shut me up. Kirby doesn't deal with problems. He gets rid of them."
When pressed for an example, Nygren offers ones that don't really fit. For instance, she says, Puckett told her that a female employee of the Twins had levied a sexual harassment claim against him. According to Nygren, the woman reached a financial settlement with Puckett and the Twins several months before the 2001 Hall of Fame induction. The woman no longer is with the team. Lori Peterson, identified by Nygren as the attorney who represented the woman, said when asked about the settlement, "I'm not allowed to comment about any of that. … I've got to follow the rules." When asked about the settlement, Bell said, "I have no comment, no comment on that."
A more public allegation of sexual impropriety took place in September when a woman accused Puckett of dragging her into the men's room of an Eden Prairie restaurant and groping her. Puckett was charged with felony false imprisonment and gross misdemeanor sexual conduct. Puckett has said, "I'm innocent of these charges. Let the process play its course.''
The trial is scheduled for Feb. 24.
"The first month after it happened, I didn't sleep very well," the woman, identified as K.L. by authorities, told the Pioneer Press. "I'm very cautious now. I'm afraid to go out. I walked into a restaurant recently, and at first glance I thought I saw Kirby Puckett sitting there. I was about to have a heart attack and wanted to leave.
"It wasn't him, but when I go out now I'm afraid of running into him."
DIVORCE AWAITS SIGNATURE
Tonya Puckett says she wants to move on with her life. She has lived apart from Kirby for most of the past year and has not been around him much lately. Her days are spent tending to their two adopted children, Catherine Margaret, 12, and Kirby Jr., 10.
Tonya says the terms of her divorce are worked out, and the final decree simply awaits Kirby's signature. She doesn't understand why he has not followed through. "If he doesn't sign," she says, "it does nothing but give more money to lawyers."
Zalk, Puckett's divorce attorney, says, "We are actively trying to get it resolved. A few issues are outstanding."
The soon-to-be-ex-wife still thinks about Kirby Puckett, but does not express the anger and bitterness of a Laura Nygren. In fact, Tonya expresses concern about her estranged husband.
"I want Kirby to be OK," Tonya says. "I want him to get his life together. I really worry about him a lot. He breathes very heavy. He's put on weight. It's not just a matter of him getting his weight down. It's a psychological thing. It's getting his mind together. I know he's depressed. If he gets his mind together, he'll get together in all the other areas."
When Tonya looks back at her time with Kirby, she does not see only the bad. She says that if she had left 15 years ago, she would not have their two kids. But she also knows what she went through, even if her eyes were not always open back then to the reality of the situation.
"I know people say if that really happened, why would this person stay?" Tonya says. "You can walk into a battered women's shelter and see a woman beat to a bloody pulp and say, 'Why did they stay?' Something happens in your mind and you've been so broken and you feel you can't make it. Sometimes you make people your god. I was in love, and what can you say? Love sometimes gets in the way of good judgments."
Today, Tonya Puckett believes her judgment is better, now that she and Kirby Puckett are apart.
"I hear people say to me, 'You seem so confident,' " Tonya says. "I was never confident. I put on that face. But I feel more confident today than I ever have in my life. I was at a point where I thought I couldn't breathe without Kirby.
"Now I know I will breathe today, tomorrow and the day after."
Staff writers Aron Kahn and Mike Wells contributed to this report.
[This message was edited Tue Dec 17 9:27:42 PST 2002 by lovemachine]
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This has been very interesting and kind of scary for us orgers who live in Minnesota because Kirby Pucket could quite possibly be the most popular Minnesotan of all time (Even Prince sang about him one time).
This article just shows that image means nothing.
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