Life goes on at baseball games statewide, just as Harmon Killebrew would have wanted.
At the Miracle League fields he supported, every kid, no matter how skilled, gets the chance to swing a bat, catch a ball and stomp on home plate.
"I played with him!" Lucas Hagen shouted while warming up for a game at Bennett Family Park in Minnetonka on Tuesday night.
The 10-year-old, who has Down syndrome, was even wearing Killebrew's No. 3 on his jersey, along with his gray baseball pants and white high-top tennis shoes.
"But he's not here today," he said somberly before pepping up for a rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
"The Killer" may be gone, but his legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of kids like Lucas who love the game of baseball, but have disabilities that keep them from playing on a traditional Little League team.
Killebrew, who died of cancer Tuesday, believed that every kid deserved the chance to play his favorite game, so he supported the Miracle League, which builds specially designed rubber turf fields to accommodate wheelchairs and crutches.
"This is really Harmon's best home run," said Bob Lietzke, board president at Bennett Family Park, where a Miracle League started four years ago. "He hit that long one at Metropolitan Stadium, but this is his biggest home run of all."
The Miracle League is a 13-year-old national organization that came to Minnesota five years ago with one field in Blaine and a few players. By the end of this summer, the Miracle League of Minnesota will have grown to 11 fields statewide with 2,000 players, and plans are underway for a new field in St. Paul and another in Brainerd.
The games are run by volunteers, including "buddies" who help each player on the field. Buddies are made up mostly of local Little League and softball teams, and Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops.
The idea that "everyone pitches in" stems from Killebrew's legacy on and off the field.
During a Tuesday night game between Esther's Braves and Twin Cities Orthopedic Twins, Khalil Eubery, 11, who has epilepsy and autism, hit a grounder past the third-baseman, then put his arm around his buddy, Luke Falconer, 12, as they walked hand-in-hand around the bases.
Khalil's mom, Kelly Anderson, cheered from the dugout. "It's funny. Khalil's the one that runs constantly at home, but never at a baseball game," she said. "But this is just awesome. We get to see these kids grow up right here on this field."
As for the buddies, they seem to be just as inspired.
"He was kind of a handful, but it's OK, I just went with it," said Patrick Eichers, 12, of Excelsior about his buddy, Connor Nearman. "They don't have to field everything. We can just talk to them and have fun. It's not really about the baseball; that's just the way we get to know them."
To close out the game, every player and buddy broke into the chicken dance together in the middle of the field. Harmon Killebrew would be proud.
Aimée Tjader • 612-673-1715