MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ Many Minnesota Twins fans were sad but smiling as they talked about their most beloved player, Kirby Puckett, after he announced his retirement.

``Kirby is why you come to the ballpark,'' Joe Holien, 25, of Minneapolis said Friday.

Puckett, 35, is so popular that many fans called him a once-in-a-lifetime player who will never be replaced. And while most said they were sad, they also grinned as they reminisced about the always upbeat Puckett, known to most simply as Kirby.

Some fans had trouble believing Puckett's career, which was untainted by controversy, nasty salary disputes or temper tantrums, was done. Puckett, they say, was a good-natured superstar who avoided the greed and arrogance prevalent in major league baseball as he led the Twins to World Series championships in 1987 and 1991.

Puckett's retirement _ because of irreversible damage to the retina of his right eye _ meant so much to Holien that he had difficulty talking about it.

He was not alone.

``I fought back a couple tears,'' said Dick Cordes of Glenwood, who heard the news on the way to the ballpark with his 6-year-old daughter, Kali.

Cordes feared Puckett's departure would be the end of big-time baseball in Minnesota. ``He is the franchise,'' he said.

Kali said more simply, ``I am going to miss him.''

Tim Friend, who has sold programs outside Twins games for 24 years, said the crowd was as somber as any he could recall.

``It's like a morgue out here,'' Friend said.

He recalled how fans were disappointed when the last superstar, Rod Carew, left, but this was different, more personal, and it came too soon.

``It's the last link to the championship team,'' Friend said.

Shawn Byrne of Prior Lake said his 4-year-old son would know what the loss of Puckett meant.

``He'll be sad,'' Byrne said. ``That was the one player he'd always yell over to and call out at. Kirby was always great about saying `hi.'''

Alex Engle, 9, of White Bear Lake, also was sad, but philosophical.

``He just couldn't play,'' he said. ``I guess he just had to do it.''

Nels Oyen of Woodbury said Puckett was a good role model for his sons.

``He is such a classy guy that the community has really benefited from having him here,'' he said.

His retirement will leave ``a big hole,'' Oyen said.

Nick Anderson, 10, of Vadnais Heights did not want to believe the permanence of the retirement.

``I don't know if he should retire, because one eye isn't going to hurt him that bad,'' Nick said. ``Just hang tough.''

He said he would have preferred Puckett stick around and bring home one more World Series championship.

John Gauderman, 21 of Grafton, N.D., said he, too, wished Puckett had waited until next year to see if his vision improved.

``I love him. He was the Twins,'' Gauderman said.

Like Gauderman, Brian Bispala, 23, of Minneapolis grew up with Puckett leading the Twins.

``It's tough,'' Bispala said.

And nearly everyone agreed with Cary Stone of Farmington, who said, ``They don't really have anybody now to take his place.''