By arriving in a sea of No. 3s, fans show Killebrew was No. 1

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 24, 2011 - 8:18 AM

At the first game at Target Field since Twins idol Harmon Killebrew died last Tuesday at age 74, his generous spirit was recalled in ways large and small, grand and quiet, by the anonymous and the celebrated.

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Gerry Dykhoff and Howie Schaber, both of Hamel, Minn., played baseball for the Hamel Hawks as kids. Schaber’s boyhood hero was Harmon Killebrew, who wore No. 3. Schaber said he was at Metropolitan Stadium when Killebrew hit his 500th home run on Aug. 10, 1971, off Orioles pitcher Mike Cuellar. He would hit No. 501 later in the game.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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Amy Capitola visited Harmon Killebrew's statue as soon as she heard the Twins idol had died. A lifelong Twins fan, she was among the first of the pilgrims to pay tribute, leaving a poster at the base of the magnificent bronze of the slugger in full swing.

By the time the Twins returned to Target Field on Monday, the shrine outside Gate 3 had grown to include dozens of flowers, from rose bouquets to backyard lilacs. A rosary lay next to some candy. There were teddy bears, a hat from the first game at Target Field, baseball cards, two cans of Killebrew root beer and a stars-and-stripes balloon tied to the statue's right ankle.

Capitola works in downtown Minneapolis -- on a street named Harmon Place -- and watched all week as Killebrew's fans brought messages written on baseballs and photos and carefully folded bits of paper. Monday, she added her own. She made small signs in the shape of home plate, with Killebrew's name and number 3, for her friends and the people sitting near them at the Twins game against Seattle.

"I think there need to be as many 3s as we can get out there," she said, on a night when the Twins asked fans to honor Killebrew by wearing his number. "He's an athlete that personifies a true hero for sports fans. He was so giving. It's our turn now to give back to him."

Thousands of people took that opportunity on the day Killebrew was buried in his hometown of Payette, Idaho. At the first game at Target Field since he died last Tuesday at age 74, his generous spirit was recalled in ways large and small, grand and quiet, by the anonymous and the celebrated.

The statue served as a kind of ground zero for those who admired Killebrew, with his humanity -- rather than his athletic ability -- the common theme. Men who were not old enough to have seen Killebrew play were urging their toddlers to pose in front of the bronze, explaining to yet another generation the legacy of service and selflessness he left to a franchise and a community he loved.

Keith Schafer of Big Lake wore a T-shirt bearing Killebrew's photo and the slogan: 573 homers, zero steroids. "I had a chance to meet him, and he was friendly to everyone, just a great guy," he recalled. Kyle MacEachern, a student at Richfield High School, had only heard of Killebrew through the media but felt moved to use white athletic tape to craft a 3 on the back of his navy blue shirt.

MacEachern's friend Jay Reed suggested that to the Richfield trumpeters participating in Monday's playing of the national anthem. "I've heard about the things he did as a player and a person," MacEachern said. "We wanted to do something to remember him."

A few fans wore Killebrew jerseys, but most came up with creative ways to display the 3. They fashioned them out of felt and foam, duct tape and painter's tape. They painted them on their faces and drew them on shirts with markers. Some bought house-number stickers at the hardware store and fixed them to sleeves.

Harry Stofferahn of Cologne chose the more expensive route, popping for a blue Killebrew jersey at the Twins clubhouse store. "All these years, I'd never gotten one," said Stofferahn, 65. "This seemed like the time to do it. He was a gentleman. All baseball players should be like him."

On the rack of keychains with names on them, "Harmon'' was sold out. People still could toast Killebrew with Killer Kool-Aid cocktails, sold at the Killebrew 573 Bar, next to the display case with the "Killebrew for Governor" buttons and a replica of his first contract -- signed by his mother, who possessed the same impeccable handwriting as her son.

Many of them stood throughout the video and photo montage before the game, which ended with heartfelt words of appreciation by manager Ron Gardenhire. The Twins trotted past the 3 drawn in the dirt in front of their dugout, an impromptu salute made with a bat, to surround another 3 behind second base. "His memory is etched in our hearts and minds," Gardenhire said of Killebrew. "He's a friend, and yet, he was one of the greatest Twins ever."

Judging from the outpouring of admiration on Monday, even those who never met Killebrew felt the same. One lovingly hand-lettered sign at the statue's base expressed the feelings of thousands of Minnesotans, declaring, "Harmon Our Humble Hero, A Class Act and Model of a Man, You're a Treasure to Minnesota."

Next to it lay a worn baseball. It delivered the same sentiment, boiled down to two words printed in black ink: Thanks, Harmon. On this night of so many tributes, that message came through loud and clear.

Rachel Blount • rblount@startribune.com

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