Legends send off a hero and a friend

  • Article by: JUDD ZULGAD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 17, 2011 - 11:29 PM

Before Jack Morris, Kent Hrbek and Paul Molitor became major leaguers, they were boys who idolized No. 3. Tony Oliva, Julio Becquer and Frank Quilici shared the field and more.

Jack Morris wiped a tear from his eye while remembering Harmon Killebrew.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Jack Morris was known as a tough and fiery competitor during 18 big-league seasons. But the St. Paul native made no attempt to show a tough facade Tuesday as he reflected on the death of Twins great Harmon Killebrew.

"I lost a hero," Morris said, his voice cracking and tears welling in his eyes.

Morris, 56, was among six former Twins who gathered in the Target Field interview room to talk about Killebrew, who died Tuesday in Arizona at age 74 after a five-month battle with esophageal cancer.

Tony Oliva, Julio Becquer and Frank Quilici were teammates and close friends of Killebrew's. Native Minnesotans Morris, Kent Hrbek and Paul Molitor remembered Killebrew as their boyhood idol before they stepped onto a major league field.

Hrbek grew up in the shadow of Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington and described the Hall of Famer slugger as "Paul Bunyan with a uniform on."

Molitor, who flew to Arizona last weekend to visit Killebrew after it was revealed that he was in his final days, spoke of being thankful for the opportunity to spend time with one of his heroes. "I'm grateful that I could tell him, as a young man growing up in this state, [that I] idolized him and just that I was very appreciative of the man he was and how I was able to learn from him," said Molitor, who also is in the Hall of Fame. "I picked the guy that you would want to pick to be your idol."

Morris, the longtime Detroit Tigers ace who won Game 7 of the 1991 World Series for the Twins, said he believed that Tuesday was more of a celebration of Killebrew's life than it was a mourning of his death.

"I'll always remember the good in Harmon, and like Paul and like Kent, to remember the innocence of being a young kid who just looked up to a guy he didn't know because of what he did as a baseball player, that you hoped that maybe someday you could be like," Morris said. "As a grown man now, I look back at him not as that guy but as the guy that tried to show me you don't have to be angry, you don't have to be mad. You can love and share love."

Oliva and Becquer traveled to the Scottsdale area together last weekend to say their goodbyes. They found Killebrew surrounded by family and in good spirits Saturday before things took a turn for the worse. The three recalled old times.

"Killebrew was laughing, and that was happy for me because I was thinking I would go see him in very bad shape and when I saw him laughing and talking it was a big surprise for me," Oliva said. "That was Saturday, and I was happy for me to have that opportunity to get there and see him in person.

"Sunday was a different story. I came back and was visiting and he was very down. You could see he was hurting. He said, 'You know I love you.' "

Said Becquer: "He was not just a friend. He was like family to me."

Quilici, an infielder with the Twins in 1965 and again from 1967 to 70, also served as the team's manager from 1972 to 1975. This gave him plenty of time around Killebrew, who played for the Twins from 1961 until 1974. While Killebrew is recalled as a gentle giant, Quilici said that didn't mean Killebrew lacked a temper.

"There wasn't a patsy in him, believe me," Quilici said. "If he got angry, he got angry inside himself and you could see when it was because he got quiet. He just was determined, whether he struck out, whether he made an error, maybe something was going wrong as far as the ballclub went. You could see him gritting his teeth. ... Inside of him, he was one of the biggest competitors you ever met in your life."

Said Morris: "The one thing that hits home the most with Harmon is his strength. Not as a player, but as a person. In his strength and his kindness. To me, he was a real man, he was all man, because he loved so much. He is this family that we call the Minnesota Twins."

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