Players take time to mourn a legendary loss

In a tough season, Twins set aside their troubles to mourn an icon.

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Harmon Killebrew, shown hitting his 37th home run in August 1969 during his MVP season, also connected with many of the recent Twins, even though they never saw him play.

Photo: Bob Schutz, Associated Press

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SEATTLE - A team beleaguered by injuries, lousy play and, most recently, anger forgot about its troubles Tuesday as the Twins took the field with some heavy hearts but many memories of a man they never saw play in person.

"As bad as we are playing right now," first baseman Justin Morneau said, "it takes a back seat. This puts things into perspective."

It was a testament to Harmon Killebrew, who died Tuesday at age 74 after a nearly five-month battle with esophageal cancer. Despite his age, he was able to connect with many Twins players in recent years and be an example that they can exude class while being passionate and competitive about the game they play.

"It would be fitting if we could all wear the No. 3," Twins outfielder Michael Cuddyer said.

They did, in a way, on Tuesday. The Twins had Killebrew's number stitched on the left sleeve of their jerseys before the first pitch against Seattle. The Mariners contributed by flying the U.S. flag at half-staff and observing a moment of silence before the game.

After the first inning, a video of Killebrew's highlights was played on the videoboard.

"That was very classy by a classy organization," said Cuddyer, after he helped the Twins defeat the Mariners 2-1 to end a nine-game losing streak. "It's just like they said, the Minnesota Twins lost a great person and baseball has lost a great person."

Killebrew was able to interact with current players through appearances at TwinsFest, the winter caravan, charity events and visits to spring training as a special coach. He engaged many of them in conversations, often about things other than baseball.

"He had a smile on his face and just said how good of a job I was doing and to continue to keep doing what I'm doing as a player," outfielder Denard Span said. "That was most of the conversations we had, and we always followed up with a good, firm handshake.

"He always asked me how my family was doing."

Cuddyer first met Killebrew in 2001, when the Hall of Famer made an appearance at Old Dominion University, in Cuddyer's home state of Virginia. It blossomed into a long friendship.

The Twins have the worst record in baseball, and after Monday's loss, players yelled at each other in the clubhouse. Killebrew, in conversations with those who visited or spoke with him on the phone in the days before his death, wanted to talk about the team's struggles more than his illness.

"In his final days he didn't want to talk about entering hospice, he didn't want to talk about ending his battle with cancer, he wanted to talk about what he felt for us and what we are going through in this clubhouse," Cuddyer said. "That's the least of anyone's worry when you are talking life or death, but that's how he was."

Killebrew had many conversations with Morneau through the years. If there's anyone on the club equipped to become the first Twin to hit 40 homers in a season since Killebrew, it's Morneau.

Morneau's career high is 34 homers, coming in his American League MVP season of 2006. He's tried Killebrew's advice but has realized even more how impressive it was for Killebrew to have eight seasons with at least 40 home runs.

"You ask a lot of guys if you ever try to hit a home run, and they say no," Morneau said. "He said they are lying. If there is a situation where [he was] up there and got a chance to win in the eighth, ninth inning, [he] was looking for a pitch where he's trying to hit a home run.

"He was one of the first sluggers who struck out but knew what he could do. If he took three good swings and connected, that ball had a chance to leave the park."

Killebrew, however, didn't have to talk about his home run prowess to impress the current Twins.

"The reason he's made such an impact on this world was because of who he was outside of baseball," Cuddyer said. "Who he was the 30-plus years after he retired and continued to be an ambassador, not just of baseball but life in general."

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