‘Kirby’ explores the drama of former Twin Puckett’s rise and fall

A life full of ups and downs, Puckett’s story is an original one.

> ST. PAUL (AP) – Kirby Puckett packed a lot of drama into his short life – from jovial World Series hero and Minnesota Twins Hall of Famer to ex-ballplayer disgraced by allegations of domestic violence.

That drama fuels “Kirby,” a new play that examines Puckett’s spectacular rise and fall and what happens to larger-than-life characters when they are thrown off a pedestal. It premieres Oct. 13 at the History Theatre, which specializes in presenting real, American stories.

“I think the play is a tribute to Kirby,” said playwright Syl Jones. “You can’t help but come away feeling incredibly compassionate for him and about him, and also passionate about the game of baseball.”

Jones, a baseball fan, says he knew two days after Puckett died that he had to tell his story. Only 45, Puckett succumbed after suffering a stroke in March 2006.

“I loved Kirby, and I wanted to share what I felt and what I thought was true about him as soon as I could,” Jones said.

Rather than retelling Puckett’s biography – future Hall of Fame slugger grows up in a Chicago housing project, helps power the Twins to two World Series titles, then sees his career cut short in 1996 by glaucoma that blinds his right eye – Jones says his play contrasts “Kirby the Man with Kirby the Myth.”

“I think it’s common for people who are in the public eye: They develop this persona that gets them through and then they have to deal with real life,” Jones says.

For Puckett, that apparently meant displaying a cheerful personality that masked inner turmoil. Stocky and cuddly, Puckett inspired a “Kirby Bear” teddy bear and was greeted with spontaneous hugs by women in the street after the Twins’ 1991 World Series win, Jones recalls. Puckett was a hero in that series against Atlanta; in Game 6, he made a leaping catch against the center field wall, then homered in the bottom of the 11th to force Game 7.

But fans were shocked by the allegations that surfaced in Puckett’s divorce from his wife, Tonya – claims that he threatened to kill her during an argument on the telephone (which he denied to police) and had years ago choked her with a cord, put a gun in her face and used a power saw to cut through a door to get to her.

In 2002, Puckett was accused of groping a woman in a suburban restaurant. He was acquitted, but his troubles clearly took a toll on Puckett, who packed on the pounds in retirement. He moved to Arizona and, according to his fiancee, was making wedding plans when he died.

Director Steve Moulds says the play’s theme is spelled out in a key speech by a character known simply as Coach.

“The coach tells us that baseball is more forgiving than life,” Moulds says, “because in baseball, you can trip, you can fall down, you can make an error, but you can always get up, and maybe next inning you can get the hit that saves the game.”

“Kirby,” which runs through Nov. 4, kicks off the History Theatre’s 30th anniversary season at its 595-seat playhouse.

“This is an American story in the truest sense of the word. It’s about baseball, the great national pastime. It’s about hero worship – the peculiar kind of hero worship that we have in America,” Moulds says.

In “Kirby,” Ansa Akyea dons Puckett’s No. 34. Akyea, who grew a goatee and shaved his head for the part, said he’s “humbled” to portray the sports icon.

“He was idolized. You have to tread lightly with that kind of thing. It’s very special,” said Akyea (pronounced ah-CHAY-ah), who has played soccer, basketball and rugby.

At a rehearsal, Akyea powerfully swung a Louisville Slugger bat. Moulds instructed him to do Puckett’s trademark “butt wiggle” before swinging.

“People remember that,” Moulds said.

“Kirby” features five actors – some playing multiple roles. Sha Cage portrays Puckett’s ex-wife and his mother. Terry Bellamy plays Coach. Another character, The Big Guy, is a radio personality as well as a baseball scout taking notes.

The set will feel like the Metrodome, Jones said, with organ music and spoof pregame announcements. The final scene is a dialogue between “Young Kirby” and “Old Kirby” using a large, JumboTron-like screen.

Former Twins star Tony Oliva, who worked with Puckett as the Twins’ hitting coach in both the minor and major leagues, said he liked what he saw of Akyea’s performance when the play was in workshops and plans to attend when “Kirby” opens.

“I hope they do a good job, because he (Puckett) deserves the best. I know he was the best,” Oliva says.