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Updated: May 13th, 2011 7:13pm
Players pay tribute: 'You tried to be better' with Killebrew around

Players pay tribute: 'You tried to be better' with Killebrew around

by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The atmosphere around the Minnesota Twins clubhouse and batting cage prior to Friday night's game against the Toronto Blue Jays was understandably subdued following the news that Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew has entered hospice care.

The team donned its cream-colored, home throwback uniforms and hung Killebrew's jersey in the dugout -- two symbolic gestures that will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

"It was tough," Justin Morneau said of his reaction to hearing the news. "You just hate to see bad things happen to good people, you know. He's as good as it gets."

"He just cares about everybody that he comes in contact with, and I think that's part of what makes it so tough for everybody, that he's so willing to help our clubhouse, and you feel so helpless not being able to do anything to give back to him. All you can do is say thank you for all that he's taught us and let him know that everybody here is deeply saddened by this, and hopefully with how much he's struggled the last six months, hopefully we know if there's a better place he's going to it, that's for sure."

Killebrew is currently in Arizona, where former teammate Tony Oliva -- and perhaps others -- plans to visit on Saturday.

"A lot of people know him for playing the game," Oliva said, "but if you got to know him in person it's a big difference. Killebrew was a great ball player, but I think he is a better human being. I think he was too nice to be a player. He never got mad, never threw the helmet."

Here's what other Twins players, and manager Ron Gardenhire, had to say about Killebrew:

Joe Mauer

What was your earliest memory of Harmon?

"I never got the pleasure to watch him play, but I'd say probably the first time I met him was TwinsFest that first year when I was 18 years old. I met him, and it was, 'This is Harmon,' and I was like, 'Oh, this is nice.' I didn't really know too much of the history of what he did. I was just like, wow, he was a really nice guy.

"He was just walking around, and I can't remember who pulled me aside and said, 'That's a Hall of Famer right there.' I was like, 'Wow.' That's one thing I've admired about him ever since I met him, that he treats everyone the same. You wouldn't know he's a Hall of Famer when he walks into the room. He's just a great guy and somebody I learned a lot from, how to be a professional and just a great human being."

Does he have real relationships with young players?

"Definitely. He's down at spring training every year. He wants to be down there, wants to be on the field with the guys. I know when we have new guys come to big league camp I make sure to tell them, 'Go introduce yourself to Harmon.' He's one of the first guys that you should meet."

Morneau

When did you get to know Harmon?

"Well, I came in for Twinsfest and he looked at my signature. He didn't exactly approve of it, so he sat me down. I think I was only 19 or 20 years old, my first Twinsfest. Like he does with so many young players, he sits them down and he says, 'We're going to work on this. I've got to be able to read that thing.'

"So he sat with me for a half hour, and I got to talk to him. I was just a kid in A-ball or double-A or whatever it was, and he didn't have to take the time for me. He doesn't treat anybody any different. he's just a great person to be around. I still remember that to this day. You look at Cuddyer's signature and he's got probably the best signature on our team. (Killebrew) did the same thing with Cuddyer."

Is it rare that nobody has a negative thought about Harmon?

"It doesn't surprise me with knowing Harmon. Sometimes somebody gets sick or you get some news like this and everyone tries to look for the positives, and no one has to search for any positives for Harmon. It's all positive, it's all there, and he's done it all. Through his foundation, through the work he's done away from the field since he retired, everything else. He's all about helping other people and doing anything he can do make other people feel comfortable or to help out any way he can with various charities and everything else. You don't have to look far to find something good to say about Harmon."

Gardenhire

"I think for me the first time he put the uniform on (at spring training in 2006) and I saw him walk out with that Twins jersey back on and the number three, I thought that was really cool that day, to see him walk into my office and shake my hand and say he's so excited to be on the field. That was probably as good a moment as you can have as a manager, knowing that you're kind of rubbing elbows with Harmon Killebrew. Just to watch him walk around and how he touched everybody, not just players. It didn't matter, he talked to everybody and everybody he talked to walked away with a smile. That's Harm."

Michael Cuddyer

How much of who you are as a baseball player is because of Harmon?

"If it's not directly because of Harmon, it's because of others I've learned from who learned from Harmon. It all started with class and the way he's carried himself off the field.

"I met him for the first time at an Old Dominion baseball clinic in Norfolk, Virginia. I had just been drafted because of the Twins and he treated me like he'd known me forever. As an 18 year, 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."

Joe Nathan

Did you and Harmon have a pitcher-hitter relationship at all?

"I think ours went more for golf than for baseball. We stayed away from baseball since he was a hitter and I was a pitcher. It was a different scenario, even though most of my life I've been a position player. Even to this date I think I've spent more of my time playing a position than I have pitching. But we've stayed with the golf relationship."

Best memories?

"I think for me, it just blows me away how it doesn't matter who he's talking to, you'll never know. There's no difference in how he treats people and goes about his everyday life. It's something we could all try and emulate. I don't think he does anything that he thinks is special but you ask a lot of guys in here that have gotten a chance to know him
the first thing they'll say is they'll remember the first time they met him, they'll remember talking to him every time and just remember how cool it was to have a conversation with him even though he thinks it's just talking. I'm sitting there going, 'I'm talking to Harmon Killebrew. It's pretty cool.' But the way he treats it is he has another friend and somebody else he could talk to. It's special, and our thoughts and prayers go out to him right now."

Rod Carew

"This is a sad day for all of baseball and even harder for those of us who are fortunate enough to be a friend of Harmon's. Harmon Killebrew is a gem. I can never thank him enough for all I learned from him. He is a consummate professional who treats everyone from the brashest of rookies to the groundskeepers to the ushers in the stadium with the utmost of respect. I would not be the person I am today if it weren't for Harmon Killebrew. He is a Hall of Famer in every sense of the word."

Torii Hunter

"Harmon is truly one of the great men I have had the privilege to be around in this game. He has been a mentor to me like he has been to so many who came through the Minnesota organization. I remember one of the great lessons he taught me early in my career was a simple but important one. He looked at my signature when I autographed something and told me to make sure I hit every letter. Harmon told me how important it would be for fans to read your name years from now.

"One of his points was what a shame it would be to have played Major League Baseball and not have someone be able to identify your signature. I have never forgotten that and remind young players to this day. Harmon was a tremendous player, but is an even greater man. His announcement today was delivered with the same grace and class that he has lived throughout his life. My family and I join the countless people around the country sending their thoughts and prayers to Harmon and his family."

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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