'Killer' exhibiting strength beyond his wrists

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 20, 2011 - 6:49 AM

Decades after Harmon Killebrew retired that home run stroke, the ailing Hall of Famer still finds ways to inspire.

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Harmon Killebrew hit a homer in the 1965 All-Star Game at Met Stadium.

Photo: Kent Kobersteen, Star Tribune file

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Ralph Rowe was a baseball lifer and working as the Twins' hitting coach in 1974. Workouts were taking place at Orlando's Tinker Field before the start of the exhibition schedule.

Harmon Killebrew was in what would be his last season with the Twins. He was dealing with sore knees and an injury to a big toe that had been chronic for several years. He was no longer the fearsome "Killer" to American League pitchers, but there on a blue morning in central Florida, during batting practice, the lumber still made an impressive sound when it met the baseball.

This swing produced such a sound, and the baseball then soared over one of the wooden advertising boards in left field and toward a distant parking lot. Rowe was leaning on the cage, but the blast made him straighten up to get a view.

Rowe then nodded to a reporter and said: "You know where that bat speed comes from, don't you? Those wrists are as big as my forearms. He's still got the wrists."

Bill Rigney was more animated in his praise of Killebrew's power during Rig's 2 1/2 seasons [1970-72] as Twins manager. He would be bouncing around his office, telling stories from 1961-1969, when he managed the Angels and Harmon was the AL's premier home run hitter.

"My lefty, George Brunet, hated facing Killebrew," Rigney would say. "We're here at the Met, two outs, nobody on in the first, and Brunet is looking at me, shaking his head toward first. I figure it out: He wants to walk him.

"I run out there and say, 'If you're going to walk him, George, at least make it look good.' "

On June 16, 1966, Brunet beat the Twins 7-2 with a complete game. He walked Killebrew four times, including three that were officially intentional. In his career, Brunet walked Harmon 22 times in 63 plate appearances.

Killebrew's notoriety as a slugger was passed along in "Ball Four," pitcher Jim Bouton's mind-expanding diary of the 1969 expansion Seattle Pilots. Included was this passage:

"When Dick Baney went into the game to throw his first major league pitch, everybody in the bullpen moved to the fence. ... We wanted to see how he'd do against the Brew, which is what we call[ed] Harmon Killebrew.

"Inside I still think of him as the Fat Kid, which is what Fritz Peterson over at the Yankees always called him. I'd say, 'How'd you do, Fritz?' and he'd answer, 'The Fat Kid hit a double with the bases loaded.'

"Well, the first time the Fat Kid faced Dick Baney, he hit the second pitch 407 feet into the left-field seats. After the game I was shaving next to Baney. 'Welcome to the club,' I said. 'You lost your virginity tonight.' "

There were 40-year-olds at Target Field last summer who only know of Killebrew from conversations of parents. They probably figured it was a thrill for the grandfatherly guy to offer scoreboard congratulations to Jim Thome for a home run landmark, rather than the other way around.

Maybe as teenagers, they watched a then-hip Dave Letterman host "Harmon Killebrew Night" on his show in 1986. The guests included Liberace, LeRoy Neiman painting a portrait of Dave and Harmon, and Charlie Pride singing "Mountain of Love" to Harmon over the phone from Dallas.

We older Minnesotans recall Killebrew for the same reason as did Ralph Rowe, Bill Rigney, George Brunet, Jim Bouton and Dick Baney: for the danger that loomed when he stepped in the right-handed batter's box -- and for the soaring majesty that followed 475 times in his 14 seasons with the Twins.

We learned last month that Harmon, now a flat-bellied 74-year-old rather than a pitcher's nightmare called the Fat Kid, has esophageal cancer -- a very tough one to beat.

Last week, with baseball meetings in Phoenix, a Twins delegation of owner Jim Pohlad, President Dave St. Peter and GM Bill Smith went to visit Killebrew at his home.

"As you would expect, Harmon lifted our spirits more than the other way around," St. Peter said. "One of the first things he did say was, 'What are you waiting for? Get Thome signed.' So, we were happy to get that done, for Harmon and for our ballclub."

On departure, the trio received extra-firm handshakes from Harmon. The power comes from the wrists.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. preusse@startribune.com

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