Jim Souhan: Killebrew's caring nature shows even when he needs sympathy

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 14, 2011 - 7:32 AM

As Harmon Killebrew deals with cancer, the slugger has been quick to offer comfort to others. "It just speaks to the character of him,'' Justin Morneau said.

A video tribute to legendary Twin Harmon Killebrew aired at Target Field before Friday’s game.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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They heard the news on Friday morning. Most of them cried.

Told that Harmon Killebrew would stop fighting esophageal cancer and choose hospice care for his last days, those who revered him remembered the slugger who swung for the fences and the man who refused to build them.

"He just cares about everybody he comes in contact with,'' Twins first baseman Justin Morneau said. "I think that's part of what makes this so tough for everybody, is he's so willing to help everybody else, 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.

"If there's a better place, he's going to it, that's for sure.''

Killebrew visited Twins spring training this year, even though team President Dave St. Peter and others advised against it, given Killebrew's health. Killebrew and Morneau spoke, and there was sympathy.

"He said he felt so bad for me,'' said Morneau, who suffered a season-ending concussion last season. "For someone in his position, he's telling me he's worried about me. It's pretty amazing. It just speaks to the character of him.''

St. Peter visited Killebrew in Arizona on Thursday. Again, there was sympathy. "I was with Harmon last night, and he made a point of asking me how Gardy 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.''

Killebrew became an original Twin when the Washington Senators moved to the prairie in 1961. He became the greatest Twin, finishing his career with 573 home runs. He ranks 11th all-time in that category, and seventh among sluggers who never have been connected with steroids.

"Everybody knows him because he was the home-run king,'' former teammate Tony Oliva said. "I know him better, and I think he was a better person than ballplayer. Killer would always go out of his way to help somebody else.''

Killebrew insisted that young players learn to sign legible autographs, to connect with fans. He lent his time and name to charities. He made Friday's announcement in part to support hospices, when he could have, instead, maintained his privacy.

He killed baseballs with an uppercut and people with kindness.

"The first time I met him was TwinsFest my first year,'' Joe Mauer said. "I was 18 years old. I met him and it was just 'Harmon,' and I thought he was nice. I didn't really know too much of the history. I was just like, wow, he's a really nice guy.

"I don't know who, but someone told me, 'Yeah, that guy's a Hall of Famer right there.' That's one thing I've admired about him since I've met him, is he treats everybody the same. You wouldn't know he's a Hall of Famer when he walks in the room.''

Another St. Paul native, Jack Morris, grew up idolizing Killebrew.

"I just hope he doesn't go through too much pain and suffering,'' Morris said. "I've been informed almost daily for the last two months. I knew about this before he announced it. If he's finally accepting what he's ultimately accepting, I just don't want him to go through the pain he's gone through, and I know he's been in a lot of pain.

"I just hope they give him the right stuff.''

Morris called Killebrew's home runs "Monster flies,'' and Oliva remembers how they would fool him.

"He would hit them so high,'' Oliva said. "I would be yelling, 'Run, Killer, run!' and he would just watch the ball, and slowly drop the bat, and slowly start to jog, and the ball would just keep flying. He hit them so far.''

Bert Blyleven, who will join Killebrew in the Hall of Fame this July, called Killebrew "a father-like figure.''

Wouldn't it have been nice if Killebrew could have joined him at Cooperstown this summer? "He'll be there,'' Blyleven said. "One way or another.''

Several members of the Twins organization said privately they hope Killebrew can hold on until the team visits Arizona next weekend, to give Gardenhire, the players and broadcasters a chance to visit him.

Members of the organization able to travel, including Oliva and Paul Molitor, were making plans to visit Killebrew this weekend, and other members of the organization were staying in touch via e-mail or phone.

Twins General Manager Bill Smith received a note from a fan who wanted to thank Killebrew for a kindness. Smith forwarded the message.

"Everyone he's ever met has a Harmon Killebrew story,'' Smith said. "And they're all telling those stories today.''

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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