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Updated: October 17th, 2013 5:22am
P.J.R.: There are sad examples of lost images for athletes

P.J.R.: There are sad examples of lost images for athletes

by Patrick Reusse
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Kirby Puckett won his only American League batting title with an average of .339 in 1989. He also led the league in hits for the third straight year, this time with 215.

I wrote a column offering tepid congratulations to Kirby, pointing out that I preferred the power-hitting Puck that we had seen the previous three seasons. He had hit 31 home runs with 96 RBIs in 1986, 28 with 99 RBIs in 1987, and 24 with 121 RBIs in 1998.

In his year of the batting title, Kirby had nine home runs and 85 RBIs.

The next time I ran into Puck, he barked at me for the first and only time in his 12 seasons as a star with the Twins. "You didn't have to write that I was a horse ---- player,'' he said.

This was far from the suggestion, which was only that I preferred the Puck with large power numbers over the Puck with a gaudy batting average.

I found out how sensitive Kirby was to criticism, even when it was a changeup and not a fastball.

That sensitivity was coupled with great pride in the good-guy image that had helped make him for a time the most popular athlete in Minnesota's major league sports history.

I've long been convinced that the blows to his image that Kirby suffered early in the 2000s were what led to his premature death on March 6, 2006.

I'm not saying this is correct. And I'm admittedly playing amateur psychologist. This is simply my opinion:

That Kirby lost his discipline and grew to immense size for his 5-foot-8 frame due to the anguish of losing to a considerable degree that good-guy image.

Hey, I also spent many years of immense size for my 5-foot-10 frame, but I blame it on gluttony ... not on losing a well-cultivated image as a sweetheart of a guy. I never had to worry about that one.

Kirby was outed as a philanderer in March 2002, he went through a messy divorce with his wife Tonya, and he had to beat a charge of groping a woman in a restaurant bathroom.

In March 2003, Sports Illustrated carried a Frank Deford article under the headline, "The Rise and Fall of Kirby Puckett.''

That winter, he moved to Scottsdale. The last time I saw Puck was in late March 2005, when he came to town for the wake of Bob Casey, the Twins' long-time public address announcer and a dear pal of Kirby's.

Puck was sequestered in the basement of the funeral chapel, out of view of the long line of people attending the wake. He was so large at that point that he told me I looked good, and I was 300+.

A year later, Puck was dead from a stroke.

In my opinion, Daunte Culpepper is another great Minnesota athlete who was derailed by a loss of image. In this case, it was the severe decline of a playing career, not in his health.

Culpepper always took his share of criticism from goofy Vikings fans who wanted more from the quarterback, even after his fantastic season of 2004. He opened the next season with eight interceptions in two games, went three TDs and no interceptions in a win over New Orleans, and then threw a couple more picks in a blowout loss to Atlanta on Oct. 2.

And then came the bye week, and the Love Boat. The public found out Daunte, an alleged family man, liked women ... a lot.

You can blame the decline of his career on the serious knee injury suffered in Carolina on Oct. 30. I blame it on the loss of his image, leading to the loss of bravado with which he had carried himself.

Again, amateur psychology: The bravado was a shield for a less-confident person on the inside, and when Daunte lost that, he was cooked as a big-time quarterback.

Another example of what the loss of an image can do: Tiger Woods has not a major tournament since the U.S. Open in 2008.

Do you think there's a chance in Hades that Tiger Woods could have gone five years without winning a major, that he could have authored all those weekend fadeaways in majors, if he still had a bullet-proof image with his competitors and the public?

I don't.

We now have the case of Adrian Peterson. His perfect image has taken a considerable hit in recent hours. And this has happened in the wake of Peterson losing a 2-year-old son that he never knew.

As an on-field performer, Adrian's fortunate to be a running back, a position that requires mighty legs, not a mighty mind.

Yet, it's never easy for an athlete to have the public think you are a hero both on and off the field, and then have the second half of that taken away.

We will find out in the weeks ahead if Peterson can maintain his athletic invincibility while having lost his perfect image.


Patrick Reusse has been covering sports in the Twin Cities since 1968. He co-hosts SportsTalk from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. and hosts The Ride with Reusse from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays. He also co-hosts "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Patrick | @1500ESPN_reusse | The Ride with Reusse
In this story: Adrian Peterson