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The biggest baseball story of the year so far isn't Dwight
Gooden, Albert Belle or the record-setting number of runs being
scored, but rather what has been missing: Kirby Puckett, the
game's gleeful superstar. Perhaps because Minnesota is a
second-rate club outside the media glare, talk of Puckett's
plight has faded all too easily.

On March 28, the morning after slashing two spring training hits
off Atlanta Braves ace Greg Maddux, Puckett awoke and could
barely see out of his right eye. Two weeks later doctors
diagnosed his condition as early signs of glaucoma and measured
his vision at 20/200. Suddenly his career was in jeopardy. If
hopes for Puckett's return haven't gotten darker since then,
neither have they gotten all that much brighter. On April 17 he
had laser surgery to repair blood vessels in the eye, but even
though his vision has improved to almost 20/80, it is still too
impaired for him to play. Puckett can shag flies and hit batting
practice fastballs but nothing more. He is on the disabled list
for the first time in his 13-year career.

"I looked at the Twins' lineup, and my first thought was how
great it was not to have to face him," said Yankees starter
David Cone in late April, a week before his own season was ended
by an aneurysm in his pitching shoulder. "Then I realized that
was selfish. He's so important to the game. He loves it and
plays it so hard."

And so ebulliently. The 35-year-old Puckett, a 5'8", 216-pound
knockwurst of a man, swings with a kick that could start a
Harley Fat Boy and chugs around the outfield like the little
engine that could. Diminutive, impish, always hustling, he has
been as essential to midsummer nights as Puck himself.

Last season Puckett batted .314, drove in 99 runs and made the
American League All-Star team for the 10th straight year. Were
his name to come up for Cooperstown tomorrow, his 2,304 hits,
.318 average, 1,085 RBIs and six Gold Gloves would almost
certainly open the door. "I know a lot of players feel the game
owes them something," he said recently, pondering the
possibility that he will have to retire. "I've never felt that
way. I owe the game so much more than it owes me."

Not really. For now, all we can do is hope we haven't seen the
last of Kirby Puckett and remember, as the summer unfolds, that
baseball is not the same without him.

--Kostya Kennedy

COLOR PHOTO: ANTHONY NESTE The game isn't nearly as joyful without the puckish Puckett [Kirby Puckett]