Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Killer is gone

Harmon Killebrew, a true gentleman in every sense of the word, passed away in Arizona yesterday. Both Twin Cities daily papers led both the main page and the sports page with the story. The tributes from former teammates, current and former Twins, opponents, his many friends, and people who may or may not have seen him play keep pouring in. As a kid growing up in Eau Claire, WI., a short 90 miles away, I had a double allegiance to the Milwaukee Braves in the NL and the Minnesota Twins in the AL. Predictably, Henry Aaron and Harmon Killebrew were 'my guys'. As a tall, skinny kid with toothpick arms that could barely hit the ball out of the infield, I had to admire these guy who could pound the ball out of the park. Due to the close proximity to 'the Cities' I was able to see a lot more of Killebrew than I was of Aaron, and after 1966 and the disheartening move to Atlanta, I became a 100% Twins fan.

The next door neighbor in our tightly knit neighborhood, Jim S, managed a bakery that I later worked at, and had that goofy bakers schedule that permitted lots of trips to summer day games and that rarity these days, the double header. His son Fred was our age and was in the special ed program. Boys being boys, we would sometimes torment Freddie a bit (God help the kid from outside the neighborhood that tried it) but he was a buddy and almost Rain Man-like in his ability with numbers. One of his amazing math feats was the mental calculation of Harmon's batting average based on how he did that particular day. He loved riding his bike and putting miles on the big round odometer that was connected the front wheel with a cable, sheer joy from watching the numbers accumulate. In one of our more creative pranks, the MadDog and I heisted his bike, put the front wheel on an electric washer motor, spun off about 25 miles, and put it back in his garage. Let's just say Freddie's angst was monumental. Since we were all usually hanging out together , a spur of the moment trip to Met Stadium was pretty easy to pull off, especially when my old man was on the night shift and could ride copilot in Jim's massive Olds 98. Even with two adults and 4 kids it was still cavernous in this classic 60's vehicle, whose hood resembled a football field when viewed through the windshield. We would load up before lunch and head for Bloomington.

When it came to homeruns Harmon's were towering. Hank would hit line drive home runs with his unbelievably quick wrists but Harmon's, along with Mickey Mantle and big Frank Howard of the Washington Senators, were the classic tape measure shots. We never saw The Mick hit one in Met Stadium but the Killer and Howard both entertained us with some blasts in the mid '60s. Harmon finished #11 on the MLB official all time home run list and # 7 on mine and many fan's list. That's the list where you dump the steroid cheaters. Bonds-cheater. A Rod-cheater. Sosa- cheater. McGwire-cheater. Henry Aaron is the home run king and the Killer is #7 and there is absolutely nothing you can say that will alter my opinion one iota.

He was and is the face of the Minnesota Twins franchise and his statue graces one of the entrances to the new outdoor ballpark, Target Field. The current players, including Jim Thome, one of the non steroid guys ahead of Harmon on the home run list, will wear #3 on their uniforms for the rest of the season. They all knew him because he was a fixture at spring training for many years, a class guy who never thought he was better than anyone else. We need more guys like that but they are more rare in the pro sports world these days. It's a tired cliche but the world is indeed changing and I'm not sure I like it. Happy trails to Harmon and the best to his family and his much larger Twins family.

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