Minnesota Twins star Kirby Puckett, on the disabled list with blurred vision in his right eye, is suffering from a treatable form of glaucoma, but Baltimore eye specialist Dr. Burt Glaser said yesterday it is too early to tell whether the veteran outfielder will be able to continue his baseball career.
Puckett developed severely impaired vision during spring training and traveled to Baltimore two weeks ago to be examined by Glaser, a pre-eminent eye specialist at The Retina Institute. Tests revealed retinal damage that was caused by a blocked artery in Puckett's right eye, the result of an early stage of glaucoma -- an abnormal increase in the pressure inside the eyes that can cause irreversible damage to the optic nerve if left untreated.
Glaser said that the problem was detected before any nerve damage occurred, and that Puckett's eyesight has improved significantly since he began taking medication to reduce his intraocular pressure. But he stopped short of guaranteeing that Puckett's vision would improve enough for him to play again.
"I believe we are seeing improvement," Glaser said. "It's too early to tell what the final outcome will be. It's important to realize that retinal tissue heals slowly. It's typical to see healing take place over weeks or even months. . . . I continue to be optimistic that Kirby will get his vision back 100 percent, but as with any hTC medical situation, only God knows for sure."
Intense media speculation about Puckett's condition prompted his agent, Baltimore attorney Ron Shapiro, to arrange a press briefing yesterday to clarify the situation. Puckett, Glaser and Shapiro met with reporters before last night's game.
Glaser is fairly certain of one thing. The problem is not connected to the Dennis Martinez fastball that struck Puckett near his left eye late last season and caused multiple facial injuries.
"I do not think that the decrease in blood flow had anything to do with Kirby's injury last year," Glaser said.
Puckett, 35, is holding out hope that his vision will improve sufficiently to return this season. He will continue to travel with the team and work to stay in playing shape so he'll be ready to return quickly if there is dramatic improvement.
"I'm the healthiest guy in this room," he said. "Nothing hurts. It's weird. I just can't play baseball. I've got blurred vision."
He admits that it's difficult to sit on the bench and watch someone else take his place in the Twins lineup -- where he has been a mainstay since 1984 -- but he seems ready to accept whatever the future brings.
"I remember on Opening Day you guys thought I was [feeling] so bad," Puckett said, "but seven pitches into Opening Day, John McSherry collapsed. That put everything into perspective. It's just a game. I can still see out of one eye. I can still see my wife and play with my kids. Even if I don't play baseball ever again, I've done everything I wanted to do. I'm very lucky."
Glaucoma is a common problem that can be detected with a simple test, but that test is not part of the routine physical performed on every major-league player at the start of spring training. Intraocular pressure is measured routinely during an office eye examination, but it is unlikely that a player without a vision problem would seek more than the cursory vision test performed by his club's medical staff.
Perhaps Puckett's experience will prompt teams to add that test to their preseason physicals, but Glaser is hopeful that it will go a step further and raise public consciousness about the problems associated with glaucoma.
"It's an interesting public health issue," Glaser said. "Ophthalmologists are always trying to find ways to educate the public on the importance of glaucoma screening to detect eye disease."
In a sense, Puckett may be one of the lucky ones, because the disease manifested itself in a way that forced him to get early treatment. If the blockage -- and the resultant vision loss -- had not occurred, he might not have realized he had glaucoma until he had suffered irreversible sight loss later in life.
"It's certainly a lot better that he was diagnosed now rather than 20 years from now, when he would have almost certain nerve damage," Glaser said.
Pub Date: 4/13/96