When Minnesota Twins star outfielder Kirby Puckett woke up on March 28, the world in front of him went blurry and dark.
It was the last day of the Twins' spring training camp in Fort Myers, Fla. Puckett, a 10-time All-Star and one of the most popular players in baseball, was having a fine spring. At 35 and in the fifth year of a six-year, $30 million contract, he said he had never felt better. His batting average was a robust .360, and the day before, he had stroked two hits off baseball's best pitcher, Greg Maddux.
But on the morning of March 28, something was terribly wrong. When Puckett covered his left eye, all he could see out of his right was a dark tunnel that went fuzzy around the edges.
With the 1996 season opener three days away, the team was to play an afternoon game against the Red Sox before breaking camp. Puckett got to the ballpark early and immediately told Twins team physician Leonard J. Michienzi.
"He said, Doc, I must have slept on my eye wrong, because all I've got is this big black dot in the middle,' " Michienzi recalled.
Because Puckett is something of a practical joker, Michienzi thought at first he was kidding. He had never complained of any eye trouble. But when Michienzi checked, he found that Puckett indeed had lost a substantial part of his peripheral vision.
Michienzi drove Puckett to a nearby eye clinic, where doctors checked the pressure in his right eye and found it dangerously high -- a sign of glaucoma. The left eye was normal. Puckett was referred to the Retina Institute of Maryland, and as the rest of the Twins headed west to Denver for two final tuneups against the Colorado Rockies, Puckett headed north to Baltimore for eye tests.
Bert Glaser, an ophthalmologist and director of the Retina Institute, performed laser surgery on Puckett April 17 in an effort to repair a partial blockage of several blood vessels nourishing the retina and improve blood flow to the back of the eye. Earlier, to relieve pressure in the eye, doctors had prescribed eye drops and inserted a needle into the eye, draining off excess fluid.
At a news conference before the Twins-Orioles game at Camden Yards April 12, Glaser said Puckett had a "very early" form of glaucoma, with "some blockage of blood vessels feeding the right eye." He said it was too early to tell whether Puckett would see well enough to play baseball again. It takes at least several weeks for blood flow to improve after laser treatment.
With the eyedrops and the laser treatment, Puckett's vision has improved enough so that he can play catch, hit a baseball off a tee and shag fly balls in the outfield, but he cannot yet face big league pitching.
Ophthalmologist Glaser said April 12 he hoped the retinal problem had been caught early enough that no permanent damage had occurred. Since meeting with reporters then, he has declined repeated requests for an interview. In a brief telephone conversation two weeks ago, he said glaucoma has "multiple facets" and that "there have been some basic misconceptions" about Puckett's treatment. He would not elaborate.
Puckett's initial symptoms -- a sudden dark spot at the center of vision -- are not typical of glaucoma. His vision problems stemmed from vascular blockages in the retina that are sometimes caused by glaucoma. While early-stage glaucoma is usually treatable, the damage to retinal blood vessels is more likely to be permanent and, in Puckett's case, career-threatening.
Puckett's agent, Ron Shapiro, said Puckett had asked that no interviews about his medical condition be granted until the end of this month. Earlier reports of Puckett's condition and treatment "sort of got out of control," he said.
In a written statement to The Washington Post last week, Shapiro and Glaser said Puckett's vision problem "is due to a retinal disorder known as Central Retinal Vein Occlusion, which is a partial blockage of the blood vessels nourishing the retina. . . . A Central Retinal Vein Occlusion can occur secondary to a number of causes including an elevated pressure in the eye known as glaucoma." They said it would be "a few months" before they could tell whether the laser treatment was working. CAPTION: Kirby Puckett has a "very early" form of glaucoma, with "blockage of blood vessels feeding the right eye."