Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Remembering Harmon Killebrew

Just as I was getting set to unleash an angry rant about the joke that is the 2011 Twins, I heard that Harmon Killebrew passed away after a long battle with esophageal cancer. Sometimes I need a reminder that baseball is, well, baseball, and that there are bigger and more important things going on in the world than a game. Killebrew's death, like that of Kirby Puckett in 2006, gives that perspective. Whereas Puckett was the icon of my childhood, Killebrew was that icon for Twins fans growing up in the 60s and 70s, my father included. I obviously wasn't old enough to remember Killebrew's playing days, but I've heard plenty of stories about what he meant to Twins fans during his 14 seasons in Minnesota, and his presence within the organization even after his playing career was over will be missed. I was lucky enough to see him take the field (not to play obviously) during the old-timers' game in September of last year alongside plenty of other Twins legends, an experience that I won't soon forget.

Although Killebrew posted numbers that make him one of the greatest power hitters in baseball history, his greatness extended off the field as well. He hit 573 homers and topped 40 in a season eight times, but was known by friends and fellow players as much for his sportsmanship and kindness as for his tape measure blasts (the longest being a 520-foot moon shot at the old Met Stadium, now commemorated by the huge bronze glove at Target Field). When Jim Thome, who mirrors Killebrew in many ways (both as a player and a person), passed him on the all-time home run list, Killebrew recorded a congratulatory message that played on the stadium video screen and seemed genuinely happy for Thome. Although his nickname was the Killer, it had more to do with what he did to baseballs than his demeanor.

As a player, perhaps his best season was 1969, where he clubbed 49 homers and knocked in 140 runs with a 1.011 OPS, earning MVP honors and guiding the Twins to the ALCS. There are plenty of other places and collections of statistics that dive further into what he did and didn't do well as a hitter, but I don't feel like this is the time to nitpick where he should be ranked among the all-time greats. It's safe to say that he has a well-deserved spot in Cooperstown as the first Twin to be enshrined there.

Regardless of the quality of play of the current squad, reflecting on the life of Harmon Killebrew is a good reminder of why we love baseball and what makes our sports heroes such a big part of many of our lives. Although hearing the news of Killebrew's death didn't affect me the same way that Kirby Puckett's death did, I still mourn with Twins fans everywhere at the loss of a Minnesota legend. By all accounts, it sounded like he died peacefully with his wife at his side, and I'm glad to know that he's no longer suffering the pain of cancer. My prayers go out to his family and friends. I'll be going to a game at Target Field in early June, and I'm going to make sure to pause at Gate #3 to reflect on a great baseball player and a great man.

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