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Protecting Kirby Puckett

James O'Brien

You knew what the Friends of Kirby Puckett must have been thinking when the charges were handed down last Friday. But who thought any of them would say it out loud, much less one of his attorneys? Yet it was Puckett barrister Chris Madel who had the astounding guilelessness and poor judgment to huff to the press, "It seems strange to me that this is the way the county attorney thanks Kirby Puckett for all he has done for the state of Minnesota." You can't put it much more nakedly than that: Gods among men are not to be trifled with over such petty claims as coerced groping in public places.

It isn't hard to empathize with the apparently frayed state of Madel's nerves. This episode, you'll remember, isn't the first time Kirby's made the news over allegations of violence or sexual misconduct, or the second. Last winter came the first sordid tales of the Puckett divorce saga, which included claims by Puckett's wife Tonya that he "had assaulted her and placed her in fear of death and immediate bodily harm several times including when he choked her with a clock electrical cord, when he placed a pistol in her face as she held their then 2-year-old daughter and cocked the hammer of the pistol and locked her in the basement after an argument," and that "to get to her and assault her, Kirby Puckett used a power saw to cut through a door in their home." In December of last year, Tonya Puckett called the Edina Police and reported that Kirby had threatened to kill her during an argument on the phone. He was never charged in that incident.

Then, in March, a woman who claimed she and Puckett had carried out an 18-year affair alleged that he'd threatened her. She asked a court for a no-contact order against Puckett, a request the woman later dropped abruptly when she and Puckett "reached agreement" (her attorney's words). It's this last detail that may eventually prove the most telling. For months now reporters around the Twin Cities have been collecting stories that suggest Puckett may have been involved in closed settlements with multiple women who have made claims against him. Star Tribune reporter Jon Tevlin was the first to suggest as much publicly, in an April article that alluded to two such reported settlements, but to my knowledge there has been no further word from anyone since then. Perhaps, until the latest allegations broke, no one in the local press could summon the stomach to chase the stories very hard.

On the other hand, it's been over a month now since the alleged incident at Redstone American Grill in Eden Prairie, and there is still little if any news concerning Puckett reports that journalists have been encountering, and chasing sporadically, for at least the past several months--reports that no one could term irrelevant to the Puckett story now. To be fair, there are a couple of good reasons for the media's initial reticence. As a practical matter it is notoriously difficult to get facts and sources on the record when the issue involves claims of closed legal/financial settlements. Second, I think a lot of media outlets sensibly adopted the position that Puckett's marital troubles and alleged sexual peccadilloes were no one's business but his own--at least until the element of purported threats and harassment entered the picture.

But at that point most of the old bets were off, or should have been. As soon as it appears that a) there's a pattern of possibly unlawful behavior and b) Puckett's wealth and celebrity may have helped him earn a free pass--well, that's a story, particularly since Puckett remains an active public figure and public figurehead through his employment with the Twins.

So where are the Sunday stories in the Strib and Pioneer Press, the special focus segments on local TV news? Go back to the rhetorical outburst by Puckett's attorney. He was outraged because Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar broke the pact, revoked the diplomatic immunity Puckett has seemed to enjoy as the region's number one celebrity.

Local reporters and columnists have yet to follow suit. Surely they are out chasing leads as we speak. Or maybe not. Never underestimate the symbiotic relationship between local sports heroes and local media. Beyond the sentimental loyalties someone like Puckett commands, his popularity has put countless dollars in the coffers of local TV stations and newspapers through the years. And consequently there is an abiding institutional inclination to lag, to soft-pedal, to avoid whatever stands to injure the golden goose. The next month or two will tell the story--if none of the people sitting on Puckett leads breaks a story in that time, the likeliest reason will be that none of them wanted to.

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