March 03, 1997 12:00 PM

When the Minnesota Twins assembled recently in Fort Myers, Fla., for that annual rite of hope and renewal known as spring training, there was an unmistakable void in center field. This is the first spring since 1984 when the gap won’t be filled by the improbable Michelin Man physique of Kirby Puckett, the 10-time all-star forced to retire last July after doctors found that glaucoma had caused irreversible near-blindness in-his right eye. While the Twins could certainly use Puckett’s potent hitting and surprisingly graceful fielding, what they—and baseball fans everywhere—will miss even more is the boundless cheerfulness and Hall of Fame smile that made him one of the game’s most beloved players.

Typically, Puckett, 35, is managing to find a silver lining. Now a Twins executive vice president, he is using his popularity to increase awareness of glaucoma in hope of saving others’ sight. The disease, in which rising pressure in the eye damages the optic nerve, affects about 2 million Americans each year and is especially common among African-Americans. During an interview at the airy hilltop home he shares with wife Tonya, 31, and their children Catherine, 6, and Kirby Jr., 4, in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina, Puckett discussed his career and his future with correspondent Margaret Nelson.

“Don’t cry for Kirby,” he says. “I’m not gonna let one bad thing destroy all the good in my life.”

I WOKE UP WITH A BLACK DOT IN front of my eye last March 28 [just days before the start of the baseball season]. I said to Tonya, who was at training camp in Fort Myers with me, “Sweetie, I can’t see you, but I can see all around you.” Then my vision got fuzzy—and it never got better. I had every kind of test. They tested for brain damage, diabetes, deterioration of the retina. A month and a half went by before they found it was glaucoma.

Glaucoma is preventable and treatable. All it takes is a simple screening test, especially if you’re having your vision checked for glasses. But I’d always had 20/20 vision in both eyes; you need good eyesight to hit that ball. I never had the test. And without the test, this disease is like a thief in the night.

Those months between March 28 and July 12, when we found out I’d have to retire, were the longest of my life. No one knew what was going to happen—it was in God’s hands. I had five surgeries, and the last two hurt. All that time my life was in limbo. I had a tough time with that. I don’t like to straddle the fence. So when my doctor said there was nothing more that he could do, in a way it was a relief. I was happy to have it decided.

I don’t have any tears about this. Every day I wake up and I thank God I woke up. I thank God we caught the disease in my left eye. I look around and see so much beauty—the trees, the grass. I admire stuff like that. Growing up in the projects, we didn’t have trees or grass. We had dirt. Here my life has so much beauty. Anything is possible. The only thing I can’t do is play professional baseball. Tonya and I want to give back some of what we’ve received; we have a scholarship program at the University of Minnesota, Puckett Scholars, for kids who might not get to go without our help. And I’m enjoying the time with my family. I feel excited about life.

My last game was March 28, in spring practice. I haven’t picked up a bat since. I knew that one day it was inevitable, that the baseball would be over. Now I really don’t miss it. Maybe that means this was the time for it to be over, for me to move on. There’s a time for everything, like the Bible says.

My kids used to pray about my eyes, ask God to make them healthy. Now sometimes at dinner little Kirby will ask if I’m ever going to play baseball again, and I have to tell him no. I don’t think he understands. But I tell Kirby and Catherine the same thing I tell the other kids who prayed about this. Just because I didn’t get my eyesight back doesn’t mean that God doesn’t answer prayers. I got to play this game—that was my prayer. Someone chose me to have glaucoma. It’s like there’s a purpose to this, something I can do to help other people. I can let people know to get tested for this disease, save their vision. So who should I be mad at?

People ask me if this optimism is for real. Well, anyone who watched me play knows it isn’t an act. I try to look for the best in people and in situations. I’ve seen the other side of the world. Look, I grew up in the projects, the Robert Taylor Homes on Chicago’s South Side. When I was a kid, I saw a man get killed right in the hall, stabbed with a knife while playing dice. People called it “the place where hope died.” But my mom made sure that didn’t happen at our house. She always told us we could do anything if we worked hard. I was the youngest of nine kids, and we were poor, but not one of us fell into drugs or gangs. We’re all still alive, we’re all living productive lives. We owe that to our mother, who ran our home, and our father, who worked two jobs.

When my dad died in 1981, I told my mom I’d quit school, get a job, take care of her. But she said, “I don’t think so. I’ve invested too many balls and bats in you, and you’re gonna play baseball.” Before Mom died, in 1989, she got to see me play in the big leagues, she got to see the Twins win the World Series. I’ll always be grateful for that because she was the one person who always thought that I could make it.

A positive attitude goes a long way. Some of my best days in baseball started out as my most struggling days. I’d just work hard, do my best, smile. In 1987, when we won the World Series, people in Minnesota went crazy. Four years later we did it again, even though no one outside the clubhouse expected we could do it. It’s such a rush. Unbelievable. Twenty-five guys put aside their personal interests and come together. I have a room full of individual trophies, and they’re wonderful, but the most important are the team awards.

Everyone who knows me, or who saw me play, knows that I had a great time in Major League Baseball. For 13 years I got to play like a little boy in a man’s body. I didn’t play for the money—I loved every minute of it. And I’m glad I did, because I never took it for granted. That’s why I can move on. I did everything I could have ever imagined in baseball—more than I could have imagined. Now I’m just 35 years old, and I’ve got a whole lot of years ahead of me. Financially I’m set; our kids will go to college. We’ll have our house, and we just bought a cabin up north right on a lake. I can walk out the door and be at the dock in a few seconds.

I don’t want pity. I’ve had a fairy-tale life. I’ll be able to see my kids grow up, admire those fish I plan to catch. I can change the furniture in this room, but I can’t change my vision. I won’t let that get me down. My heart’s beating, my left eye is doing well. My life is great.

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