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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

RIP Harmon Killebrew

It's really rare when I write about baseball, or baseball players in the blog-after all, the intent is for it to by rugby-centric. That said, it was with great sadness that I learned yesterday that Harmon Killebrew passed away from Esophageal cancer at the age of 74.

As a small kid growing up in Minnesota during the 1960's, baseball was my first love. My paternal grandmother took me and my brother Bill to Minnesota Twins games at the old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, south of Minneapolis, and the current site of the Mall of America.(In the mall there is actually a bronzed home plate for where home plate really was at the old Met)

My first sporting hero was Harmon Killebrew. I loved how his compact swing could make a baseball fly. The man could just hit bombs. Over his career, he hit balls out Tiger Stadium, Fenway Park, and Comisky Park. By today's standards, he would be considered small. His burly physique for the time was God-given with some help from meat and dairy products. His nickname was "Killer", but when you saw him on TV, he came across as a very gentle, soft-spoken man. In an era when baseball pitchers were not afraid to come inside with the high, hard one to brush him off the plate, you would see him get off the ground, dust himself off-no eyeballing the pitcher, no gestures, no yelling-he would just get back up to hit, and invariably deposit the next pitch into the left field pavilion. His 573 home runs is now 11th all time among MLB players. He hit 40 or more home runs for 8 seasons. Only Babe Ruth had more than Killebrew.

I had a chance to see his last at-bat as a Minnesota Twin. He teased us on a cold September afternoon with only about 5,000 people watching the Twins play the Texas Rangers. He hit a ball a mile-only for it to be foul.He later struck out, but for a fleeting moment, he had everybody at the old Met on their feet. The Twins did not re-sign him and he finished out his last season wearing the blue of the Kansas City Royals. I once saw him hit the longest single I had ever seen at a baseball game. He hit a line drive so hard, that it bounced hard off the center field wall-missing a home run by about a foot-the ball came back with such force that the Red Sox center fielder was able to play it like a jai-alai player and quickly get it back to the infield, holding the slow-footed slugger to a single.

When I was in my mid thirties, I had heard that he was going to be signing autographs along with former Twins players Tony Oliva and Jim Perry at the Mall of America. I just had to get his autograph. I waited in line, got my autograph, and was walking away when I remembered "Oh Shit! My camera!" I went back to the line and asked Harmon Killebrew if I could please get my picture with him, that I just gotten his autograph, but did not have the camera. He simply could not have been nicer. I cannot tell you what a cool thing it is to meet somebody whom you have admired for so many years, then when you meet him, you find out he is just as nice...maybe nicer than I ever imagined. I felt like a little kid in a 35 year old body when I had a chance to meet him. My only regret right now is that the framed picture of me with Harmon Killebrew, along with his autograph is back in New Hope, Minnesota, where it is boxed away while I am working as a travel nurse.

I am very sad that my first sports hero has passed away. He had lived a good life, and 74 is hardly premature... I guess with Killebrew's passing,  it's a sign that I'm growing older, too. I think it's too bad that in this cynical era of huge salaries, bigger egos-to say nothing of the sorry, sad chapter of the whole steroid era of the 1990's, it's too bad that kids don't have that many baseball players who are role models. I know that there is a school of thought that parents should be role models, and that's true-but I felt that I was lucky to grow up in the era when I did where you could try to emulate somebody like a Harmon Killebrew-I may not have had that wonderful swing, or power at bat-but at least I could be a good sportsman and a decent person. I think that still counts for something.

RIP Killer.

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