Harmon Killebrew's move to hospice saddens Twins Territory

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 14, 2011 - 1:10 AM

The Hall of Fame slugger announced he was entering hospice care, with his five-month battle with esophageal cancer "coming to an end."

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Harmon Killebrew's bronze statue outside Target Field was a stopping point for countless Twins fans on their way into the game on Friday, after the Hall of Fame slugger announced earlier in the day that he was entering hospice care, with his five-month battle with esophageal cancer "coming to an end."

Bob Gerber, 74, and his son Steve, 43, paused for a few moments near the red roses at the statue's base.

"It brings a little tear to your eye," Gerber said. "I'm the same age as Harmon. I grew up with the guy. It's been on my mind today, so I stopped here to say a little prayer."

Killebrew became the Twins original superstar, arriving with the Washington Senators when they moved to Minnesota in 1961. He smashed 475 of his 573 career home runs as a Twin before leaving for Kansas City after the 1974 season.

"He's a true gentleman," said Dennis Berry, a 61-year-old Twins fan from Northfield. "That's a great statue because you can see the strength, and the way he got that full extension. That's how I remember him."

Diagnosed with esophageal cancer in December, Killebrew has been treated at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz. He achieved one of his goals in mid-March when he attended spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., donning the uniform.

The 5-11 slugger had hoped to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the April 8 home opener but couldn't make it because he continued to receive chemotherapy. "It is with profound sadness that I share with you that my continued battle with esophageal cancer is coming to an end," Killebrew said in his statement. "With the continued love and support of my wife, Nita, I have exhausted all options with respect to controlling this awful disease. My illness has progressed beyond my doctors' expectation of cure."

Thousands of saddened fans from around the world tweeted warm sentiments after learning of Killebrew's condition. Many sent out prayers, memories of watching him play and remarks about how gracious he was when they met him. Among the tweets: "Hope his final days are as sweet as his career," and "Thanks for the memories."

Role model

Twins players, past and present, reacted to the news with sadness and an outpouring of fond memories. "This organization was built around Harmon Killebrew, going back to 1961, a guy that had class," Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven said.

Right fielder Michael Cuddyer called Killebrew the most influential person in his life, "next to my parents."

Cuddyer, 32, recalled a time early in his pro career when he and Killebrew signed autographs together on a Twins winter caravan stop. "My signature back then was terrible," Cuddyer said. "You could see the M somewhat and you could see the C. Everything else was just squiggly lines. It was like an EKG.

"And [Killebrew] said, 'Michael, if I see this signature one more time come through this line, I'm leaving. The only person they're going to be mad at is you.' From that point on, I feel like every time I write a signature I'm trying to do him justice."

Paying tribute

The Twins had Killebrew's No. 3 jersey hanging in their dugout Friday, and Cuddyer said they will take it with them everywhere they go.

The team did a video tribute before the game, with Blyleven, Tony Oliva and Justin Morneau telling fans to keep Killebrew in their thoughts and prayers.

Earlier in the day, Oliva said that the news was "hard because when I came here [from Cuba], in 1961, he was one of the first people I met. We became special friends. ... When I came here, I didn't speak English, but he talked to me. He called me 'Rookie,' and I called him 'Killer.'"

Oliva, 72, said, he hoped Killebrew had turned a corner when he saw him at spring training.

"You know Killer, you never know how he's feeling because he's always so positive," Oliva said. "But he gained about 22 pounds, and everything was going in the right direction."

Oliva and Paul Molitor are among the Twins employees heading to Arizona to see Killebrew in coming days. Team President Dave St. Peter visited with Killebrew and his family on Thursday. "[Killebrew] made a point of asking me how [manager Ron Gardenhire] was doing because he knows we're scuffling on the field," St. Peter said. "It was kind of classic Harmon. He was worried about everybody but himself."

St. Peter said Killebrew's spring training visit "meant the world to him. It was vitally important that he get there, and frankly, we questioned whether it was the right thing for him to do, but there was no talking him out of that. He was going to go to spring training.

"At the time, he had every intention of being here for Opening Day. Now, his focus is to get here for his 75th birthday celebration [June 29], and I told him we want him to blow out those birthday candles, so we'll see what happens. Hopefully, he'll make it."

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  • Mary Vaessen, left, and Jackie Anderson paused by the statue of Harmon Killebrew outside Target Field on their way to the game Friday night. "He's a legend, man," said Anderson. "I hate to see that he's going into hospice, but at least he'll be well taken care of," added Vaessen.

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