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BASEBALL Puckett's image takes a hit



Published: Mon, February 10, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



The Twins' Hall of Fame outfielder has been charged with a felony and is going to court.

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Kirby Puckett, the All-Star player with the perpetual smile, was one of baseball's good guys.

The buoyant, barrel-shaped outfielder's 2001 enshrinement in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot stemmed nearly as much from his popularity as from the .318 average, 207 home runs and 1,085 RBIs he had in his glaucoma-shortened career with the Minnesota Twins.

After the vanishing sight in his right eye forced his retirement in 1996, Puckett received baseball's Roberto Clemente Man of the Year Award for community service. Few figures captivated Minnesota's sports fans like Puckett.

Months after his induction to Cooperstown, though, Puckett's public image took its first hit.

His wife, Tonya, accused him of threatening to kill her during an argument -- Puckett denied it -- and described to police a history of violence and infidelity.

In October, two months before the couple's divorce was finalized, Puckett was charged with a felony count of false imprisonment and gross misdemeanor criminal sexual conduct for allegedly dragging a woman into the men's bathroom at a Twin Cities restaurant.

Trial set for March 28

The trial is scheduled to begin March 28. His lawyers have asked for allowance of evidence they claim will discredit his accuser, and Puckett has said he is innocent.

Todd Jones, one of his attorneys, won't comment on the case but said his client is "holding up remarkably under the circumstances."

"It's not like he hasn't faced adversity before," Jones said. "He knows there'll be a resolution to this at some point, and we'll do our best to defend him."

When Puckett's playing days ended, the Twins kept him in the organization. His title was executive vice president, but his role was that of goodwill ambassador: appearing on the team's winter caravan around the Upper Midwest, running a charity pool tournament, even showing up at the state capitol with former teammate Kent Hrbek to help lobby legislators for a new ballpark.

Trying to boost sagging attendance during the lean years of the late 1990s, the Twins frequently turned to Puckett-related promotions.

Last weekend at the team's annual TwinsFest, Puckett was conspicuously absent among the dozens of current and former players signing autographs and posing for pictures. Puckett memorabilia wasn't as easy to find as in the past, either.

Whether the Twins like it or not, Puckett's name is still synonymous with them. Shortly after his retirement, the city renamed part of a street on the Metrodome's West side as Kirby Puckett Place. The Twins use that for their mailing address, preceded by the No. 34.

"Every sheet of paper that goes out of here has his name on it," said team president Dave St. Peter.

Discussed removing name

The Minneapolis City Council, which approved the change in 1996, hasn't discussed the possibility of removing Puckett's name, said president Paul Ostrow.

The Twins hope it would never come to that. They're proud of what Puckett did for them, including the 1987 and 1991 World Champion teams he was a large part of.

"I think Kirby's contribution to community is still worthy of a street sign," St. Peter said. "This organization continues to be very supportive of Kirby. We're not ashamed to admit that."

Said general manager Terry Ryan: "You don't desert a person because he's going through some tough times. We'll be there for any outcome. I hope the outcome is a good one."

Puckett's contract with the team expired in December and wasn't renewed -- not because of his legal troubles, St. Peter said.

The Twins have offered Puckett a new position that would include involvement as a guest coach during spring training as well as other areas of the organization, such as community affairs.

So far, Puckett hasn't accepted.

Puckett has lowered his profile considerably since the first report of bad behavior surfaced.

A longtime season ticket-holder of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Puckett hasn't attended as many games this year. He's still greeted frequently by fans and friends who walk by his courtside seat at Target Center.

Approached at a recent game, Puckett wouldn't discuss whether he planned to rejoin the Twins or talk about anything else.

"I've got nothing to say, man," he said. "I've got nothing to say."

Even during some tough times, people are impressed by Puckett's attitude.

"This is a guy who still generally treats people with genuine interest and kindness," St. Peter said. "I'm not saying upper management or players, but I'm talk about your average Twins employee from the loading dock guy to the parking attendant.

"I'm amazed, because I know a lot of things certainly still weigh on him."

Manager Ron Gardenhire has asked Puckett to help out during spring training later this month, but he hasn't heard from him in awhile.

"It's the sanctity of the baseball field," Gardenhire said. "When Puck's around the ballpark, it means a lot to our organization and our baseball team."




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