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A See-Saw Future : Eye Trouble Has Puckett Wondering If and When He'll Play Again

June 11, 1996|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MINNEAPOLIS — The photo of Kirby Puckett in uniform is taped to the side of his Metrodome locker. A black patch has been inked over his right eye.

The Minnesota Twins' outfielder sees it for the first time and explodes in laughter.

"One-eyed Jack," he says. "Every day it's something new."

Clubhouse humor. Gallows humor.

Got to laugh or you might . . .

Well, Puckett isn't about to cry and doesn't wear a patch.

He understands perspective, having come out of the projects on Chicago's south side to earn $6 million a year playing a game he played for fun on those mean streets, in the shadows of the old Comiskey Park.

He isn't complaining or screaming, "Why me?," but if perspective gives way to frustration at times, it's understandable.

A career headed for Cooperstown is on hold. Puckett still sees spots and darkness out of his right eye. A 90-mph fastball? The depth and spin of a curve? No way. He hasn't played in 1996. Will he play again?

"The jury is still out," said Dr. Bert Glaser of the Retina Institute of Maryland.

Puckett sits at his locker. His innate exuberance, the bright face with which he approaches life, fades some.

"I wake up every morning, shut my left eye and hope I can see out of my right eye," he says. "I keep hoping I'll wake up with the light on, but it's still like midnight."

And it came upon him with no warning.

Puckett laced two hits off the peerless Greg Maddux of the Atlanta Braves in an exhibition game in Florida on March 28.

He woke up the next morning and could barely see out of his right eye.

The left was fine, but with the right he could barely discern his wife, Tonya, in the bed next to him, barely make out the doctor who would soon stand in front of him.

"It can happen that fast," said Glaser. "One day you're fine. The next, your vision is drastically reduced."

Puckett has an occlusion of the central retinal vein, blocking blood flow to the retina. In the early stages of glaucoma, the occlusion is a risk factor as high blood cholesterol is a risk factor in heart attacks, Glaser said.

Puckett is 35 and otherwise healthy, but some forms of glaucoma strike early. The vision in Puckett's right eye went from 20/20 to 20/200.

He was suddenly and legally blind in that eye.

On April 17, Glaser performed an innovative laser procedure to repair the blood vessels, diffuse the blockage, increase the blood flow.

Puckett's vision has hovered in the 20/100 range since, said Glaser, who added:

"It's easy for us to come up with numbers, but it's the athlete who has to hit the 90-mph fastball and gauge the break on a curve.

"However, I would say that it has to get to 20/40, 20/50 for Kirby to even consider [playing again]. Is it possible to reach that level? Yes. Will it? We're in a watch-and-wait mode.

"Retinal tissue, like brain tissue, heals slowly. There's been progress, but this process is still new. In some cases it works extremely well. In some it doesn't.

"There is no timetable. This is a situation measured in weeks and months. If the progress stops for a few weeks, then we would have to say that's as far we can go."

In an attempt to accelerate the process, Puckett had a second laser procedure last Friday and expects to have another Monday. He uses eye drops to control the glaucoma, but because of retinal damage, contact or corrective lenses will not help him get where he needs to be as a major league hitter. His vision will have to improve naturally.

"I'm trying to deal with it as best I can," Puckett said. "The first month was OK. Now I'm in the third month and sort of going crazy. Every day is a struggle [mentally].

"My game has been reduced to batting practice and that's kind of tough. Every time I see [Paul] Molitor hit, I'm thinking I'm supposed to be on deck. Every time we lose a game, I think maybe I could have made a difference."

Could have made a difference? Puckett collected more hits in his first 10 seasons than any other player in this century. He has won a batting title, a runs-batted-in title, six Gold Gloves. He has five seasons of 200 or more hits and a total of 2,304. At 34, he had 39 doubles, 23 homers and 99 RBIs last year. He had 112 RBIs in 108 games in 1994. He had never been on the disabled list before this.

"You're talking about a guy who can carry a team for three weeks at a time," General Manager Terry Ryan said. "It also seems like he brings a lot of energy that isn't there when he's not in the lineup."

Puckett has this season and next remaining on a five-year, $30-million contract. Once he had been sidelined for 60 consecutive days, a $775,000 insurance policy kicked in. The carrier is now paying half of his salary through April of 1997, then 75% through the rest of his contract.

If he returns for even one day, however, the 60-day waiting period starts again, but for Puckett and the Twins, this is not about money.

It is about presence, charisma, leadership. Playing the game hard, with flair.

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