Mackey: Killebrew remembered, through the eyes of two generations
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As a fledgling sports media member in my mid-20's, I certainly don't feel qualified to speak or write eloquently about the life and legacy of Harmon Killebrew, who will be laid to rest in Peoria, Ariz. on Friday.
Considering my first memories of Twins baseball involved Kirby Puckett, Metrodome astroturf and a long stretch of 1990's futility, I simply can't do justice to the days when Killebrew was hitting 450-foot moonshots all over Bloomington.
But in my two or three brief encounters with Killebrew -- the last of which came in mid-March during spring training -- I came away floored at how down to earth, genuine and selfless he was.
Not sure why, but I guess I expected one of the greatest baseball players in the history of the game to be more guarded. More unapproachable.
During a small press conference at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, however, Killebrew -- ailing and undergoing cancer treatment -- greeted all seven or eight people who trickled into the room with a handshake, eye contact and a warm smile.
Killebrew seemed more interested in hearing about the lives of reporters, Twins employees and players than he was in talking about himself.
The epitome of class.
And a moment -- however routine and insignificant for the gentle Killebrew at the time -- that I'll never forget.
A teammate and friend of Killebrew's since 1961, Tony Oliva shared a bond with the slugger that few did.
When Oliva showed up to his first big league camp in 1961, Killebrew had already emerged as one of the game's best power hitters after hitting 42 home runs in 1959 and 31 in 1960.
But Oliva -- 22 years old and relatively new to the United States -- wasn't yet aware.
"It confused me, because I thought the home run guy was Jim Lemon, because Jim Lemon was old, you know," Oliva said. "Killebrew was a young, stocky guy in his 20's."
Oliva had cups of coffee with the big league squad in '62 and '63, then finally burst on the scene in 1964, when he hit .323/.359/.557 with 32 home runs for an emerging Twins team that finished 79-83.
Of course, one year later Killebrew and Oliva would lead the Twins to the franchise's first World Series.
"All the time, he'd have some good (advice) for you when you're feeling down," said Oliva. "I was feeling down many times, and he'd come out and say, 'Rookie, tomorrow. Tomorrow.' Because sometimes you have a bad day, you know? And you need somebody to come around, especially some of the big guys, to talk to you, give you some courage. Stuff like that, you never forget it. And Killebrew, all the time he was there for you."
Oliva had the chance to fly down to Arizona last weekend to spend some time with Killebrew in the slugger's final days.
"If you have a chance to spend time with Killy -- I call him 'Killy,' because he killed the ball. He called me 'Rookie,' because when I first came here I didn't speak any English, and he kept calling me Rookie. Fifty years later and he still calls me 'Rookie.'
"But to know Killebrew in person, you know he was a good baseball player. But I think he was a great human being. You put them both together and it makes a complete player. You can see him all the time he has time for the fans, for the people. And playing here for Minnesota, it was great, because Minnesota is deep in his heart for him."
Yeah, I'm up there trying to hit a home run
It wasn't until recently -- halfway through manager Ron Gardenhire's current tenure -- that Killebrew began regularly attending spring training.
And with that, one of Killebrew's most unique attributes rose to the surface -- his ability to genuinely connect with players who were 40 and 50 years his youth.
"He said last year he felt so bad for me," said Justin Morneau, referring to being sidelined with a concussion for the entire second half of 2010. "And for him, somebody who was in his position in spring training -- he's going through all that stuff and he's telling me he was worried about me. It's pretty amazing. It just speaks to the character."
Killebrew and Morneau also occasionally engaged in hitting strategy discussions.
"Whenever he came into spring training we'd have conversations about hitting home runs," Morneau said. "It's funny, because a lot of guys won't admit when they're trying to hit a home run. I asked him, 'Do you ever go up there trying to hit a home run?' He said, 'Yeah, if we're down by two runs in the ninth and I've got a guy on base, yeah, I'm up there trying to hit a home run.'
"You learn a lot from the guy, with as much experience as he had and what he accomplished as a baseball player. A Hall of Famer on and off the field. I've had quite a few conversations with him."
Killebrew has also suggested throughout Morneau's career that he move closer to the plate and worry more about home runs than batting average.
"If you hit 40 home runs you're going to drive in 100-and-whatever," Morneau said. "So it's one of those things that flies by, and of course you're going to listen to everything he says and try it. It's one of those things that I still battle with, you know. If he's the guy who hit 573 homers and he's got a suggestion for you, you'll try it."
Every time I sign an autograph, he's in my head
Michael Cuddyer isn't the only player who thinks about Killebrew every time he pens his John Hancock.
Torii Hunter, Joe Mauer, Morneau and several others will all say the same thing -- that Killebrew cared more about a legible autograph than any player in history.
"I did a signing with him on Caravan one year and my signature looked pretty bad," Cuddyer said. "He told me, 'If I see this come through the line one more time I'm walking away and leaving, and the only person these people are going to mad at is you because you're the reason I'm going to leave.'
"From then on I've tried to make it as legible as I can. Every time I sign an autograph he's in my head, thinking about how it looks."
Cuddyer met Killebrew for the first time at an Old Dominion baseball clinic in Norfolk, Virginia when he was 18 years old and a newbie in the Twins organization.
"I had just been drafted," Cuddyer said, "and he treated me like he'd known me forever."
"As an 18-year-old, he didn't have to do that. He was the same every time after that. There is always going to be a special place in my heart and my family's heart for Harmon.
"He made you want to be a better person when he was around, a better hitter in the cage when he was around. You wanted to show off when he was around. You wanted to see how good a person you could become when he was around. Anytime you felt like Harmon was watching you tried to be better."
Cuddyer will be a pall-bearer at Friday's funeral, along with Morneau, Gardenhire, Oliva, Joe Nathan, Rod Carew, Frank Quilici and Paul Molitor.
"We're all human beings, and you should treat everyone the same no matter who you are or what walk of life you come from," Cuddyer said. "And that was one of the more valuable lessons I was able to learn from him."