Harmon was trying to help Twins until the end

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 18, 2011 - 7:05 AM

Despite undergoing cancer treatment, Harmon Killebrew's final visit to spring training was more about teaching the Twins' next generation.

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Harmon Killebrew made a final five-day appearance at Twins spring training in March, giving of his time when his own time was growing short.

Photo: Charles Krupa, Associated Press

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Three months into his battle with esophageal cancer, Harmon Killebrew stood by the batting cage at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla., and smiled that Hall of Fame smile.

It was March 20, a quiet day with little fanfare at the Twins spring training complex. Most players had traveled to a road game, but Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jim Thome and Michael Cuddyer were among those taking batting practice.

Killebrew loved each of them like sons.

After the workout, Killebrew found a chair outside the clubhouse and gathered himself for an extended moment. With tired eyes, he placed both hands atop a fungo bat, took a few deep breaths and went inside to remove his baseball uniform for the final time.

Wayne Hattaway, the 71-year-old Twins clubhouse attendant, washed Killebrew's uniform, folded it and tucked it neatly inside a duffel bag next to his cleats and glove.

On Tuesday, Hattaway reflected on that moment after receiving word that Killebrew had died at age 74.

"It was an honor just to hold [Kille-brew's uniform]," Hattaway said. "This guy was so nice, I'm surprised the good Lord let him suffer."

If Killebrew was suffering in mid-March, he barely mentioned it on his five-day trip to spring training.

His doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., had encouraged him to go, and Killebrew made it a personal goal as he went through chemo and radiation.

In Fort Myers, Killebrew visited Jim Rantz, the team's longtime minor league director.

"First of all, I was surprised he made it down there," Rantz said. "To see him in that uniform -- that was something. He came to my office and said, 'What do you want me to do, Jim?' I was thrilled he wanted to address the players."

About 150 minor leaguers gathered in a meeting room. Killebrew offered a few words of encouragement, told some stories and reminded them to work on their autographs so they were neat and legible.

It was a quick lesson in courtesy from a man with 573 home runs and 573,000 acts of simple kindness.

"You couldn't ask for a nicer feller in baseball, really," Hattaway said. "He's in a Hall of Fame by himself."

In sports, coaches and managers often talk about how lucky they are when their best players are their biggest hustlers because of the example that sets for the rest of the team.

Since 1961, when the Twins first moved from Washington, Killebrew gave them everything he had -- on and off the field. He was a regular on the team's Winter Caravan, signing every autograph in every Midwest outpost, with that pristine signature.

Frank Quilici, Killebrew's former teammate and manager with the Twins, recalled the way Killebrew befriended shortstop Danny Thompson when he was suffering from leukemia in the mid-1970s.

"[Killebrew] was always keeping guys' spirits up," Quilici said. "If you were in a slump, you were liable to get more attention from him."

Jack Morris grew up in St. Paul idolizing Killebrew, then became friends with him during his own playing and broadcasting career.

"I'll always remember the good in Harmon," Morris said. "I'll look back at him ... as the guy who tried to show me that you don't have to be angry, you don't have to be mad. You can love and share love."

Killebrew was among those offering encouragement when Hattaway went through his own battle with cancer a few years ago. On March 20, before leaving the clubhouse, Killebrew gave Hattaway a big hug.

"I said goodbye," Hattaway said. "Told him I'd see him Opening Day."

Killebrew didn't make it to the home opener April 8 as he had hoped. Friday, he announced he was nearing the end of his battle and entering hospice care. On Tuesday morning, he died in his sleep.

Hattaway said he is planning to order one of Killebrew's jerseys to frame at his house in Alabama.

"I'm going to put it someplace special," Hattaway said. "So when I look up, I can see that No. 3."

Joe Christensen • jchristensen@startribune.com

By JOE CHRISTENSEN jchristensen@startribune.com Three months into his battle with esophageal cancer, Harmon Killebrew stood by the batting cage at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla., and smiled that Hall of Fame smile. It was March 20, a quiet day with little fanfare at the Twins spring training complex. Most players had traveled to a road game, but Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jim Thome and Michael Cuddyer were among those taking batting practice. Killebrew loved each of them like sons. After the workout, Killebrew found a chair outside the clubhouse and gathered himself for an extended moment. With tired eyes, he placed both hands atop a fungo bat, took a few deep breaths and went inside to remove his baseball uniform for the final time. Wayne Hattaway, the 71-year-old Twins clubhouse attendant, washed Killebrew's uniform, folded it and tucked it neatly inside a duffel bag next to his cleats and glove. On Tuesday, Hattaway reflected on that moment after receiving word that Killebrew had died at age 74. "It was an honor just to hold [Killebrew's uniform]," Hattaway said. "This guy was so nice, I'm surprised the good Lord let him suffer." If Killebrew was suffering in mid-March, he barely mentioned it on his five-day trip to spring training. His doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., had encouraged him to go, and Killebrew made it a personal goal as he went through chemo and radiation. In Fort Myers, Killebrew visited Jim Rantz, the team's long-time minor-league director. "First of all, I was surprised he made it down there," Rantz said. "To see him in that uniform -- that was something. He came to my office and said, 'What do you want me to do, Jim?' I was thrilled he wanted to address the players." About 150 minor-leaguers gathered in a meeting room. Killebrew offered a few words of encouragement, told some stories and reminded the players to work on their autographs so they were neat and legible. It was a quick lesson in courtesy from a man with 573 home runs and 573,000 acts of simple kindness. "You couldn't ask for a nicer feller in baseball, really," Hattaway said. "He's in a Hall of Fame by himself." In sports, coaches and managers often talk about how lucky they are when their best players are their biggest hustlers because of the example that sets for the rest of the team. Since 1961, when the Twins first moved from Washington, Killebrew gave them everything he had -- on and off the field. He was a regular on the team's Winter Caravan, signing every autograph in every Midwest outpost, with that pristine signature. Frank Quilici, Killebrew's former teammate and manager with the Twins, recalled the way Killebrew befriended Danny Thompson, when he was suffering from leukemia in the mid-1970s. "[Killebrew] was always keeping guys' spirits up," Quilici said. "If you were in a slump, you were liable to get more attention from him." Jack Morris grew up in St. Paul idolizing Killebrew then became friends with him during his own career. "I'll always remember the good in Harmon," Morris said. "I'll look back at him ... as the guy who tried to show me that you don't have to be angry, you don't have to be mad. You can love and share love." Killebrew was among those offering encouragement when Hattaway went through his own battle with cancer a few years ago. On March 20, before leaving the clubhouse, Killebrew gave Hattaway a big hug. "I said goodbye," Hattaway said. "Told him I'd see him Opening Day." Killebrew didn't make it to the home opener on April 8, as he'd hoped. Last Friday, he announced that he was nearing the end of his battle and entering hospice care. On Tuesday morning, he died in his sleep. Hattaway said he's planning to order one of Killebrew's jerseys to frame at his house in Alabama. "I'm going to put it someplace special," Hattaway said. "So when I look up, I can see that No. 3."
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