Kirby Puckett played the game of baseball with relentless effort and at the same time an obvious joy. That joy was shared by all who had the privilege of watching him.

He was "Kirby Puck" in the Twin Cities, a beloved figure in his playing days. He was part of two Minnesota Twins World Series champions. His performance in the 1991 World Series was nothing less than legendary in every facet of the game.

He was a Hall of Famer in the truest sense of the term, because he had all phases of the game covered. He could hit for average and power, he could run, he could throw. He could run down a ball in the gaps, or he could climb a wall in a most improbable way to make a catch that seemed beyond the normal range of human activity.

He came out of a hardscrabble Chicago background and charmed the baseball world. His effervescent style of play, his personal magnetism, made him a fan favorite, and not only among Twins partisans. He played with élan, with style, with vigor, with a kind of all-purpose glee. It is easy to say there could not be many like him. It would be more accurate to say that he was absolutely one of a kind.

A career that brought so much pleasure to so many should not have ended as it did, cut short by glaucoma. The man was still a .300 hitter in his last full season, still a player of special quality and characteristics.

His death from a stroke Monday at age 45 diminishes the baseball world. The sadness is apparent, but Kirby Puckett's post-baseball story had been sad for some time. His personal indiscretions were highly publicized. This is what happens when someone who has been a star, a magnet, a sports celebrity, and in this case, an important figure in the community, turns out to be as human as the next person. Everyone is shocked, because the individual involved, so special on the field of play, turns out to be a little too ordinary in the rest of his existence. And thus the negative publicity multiplies in a sort of downward spiral of speculation and conjecture. It is as though pleasure is derived from bringing the idol down from the pedestal.

This is the way it went for Kirby Puckett. And his body, roly-poly but solid in the best of times, went from rounded to obese. The magical Puck did not appear to be aging well in any regard. The Twins attempted to have him come to Spring Training as a special instructor, but, in recent springs he declined the offers.

It will be better to remember him as he was in his prime, when he was a player of singular ability and attraction. It will be better to remember him as he was on the field -- a winner, a champion, a player who would be noticed not only for his playing ability, but for his ability to charm the baseball public with the force and effect of his effort and the unceasing joy of his performance.

This is the way most of us who saw him play will choose to remember him. Kirby Puckett was a once-in-a-lifetime talent with a matchless flair that allowed him to shape a game into a better, happier kind of occasion. That was Kirby Puckett when he played. He was one of the best: on talent, on trying, on making the game a joy to watch. And the blend of skill and exuberance he displayed made him, in his prime, somehow even better than that.