Killebrew memorial is a salute from the heart

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 27, 2011 - 10:04 AM

Devoted crowd of greats, fans tearfully honor Twins legend

About an hour into Harmon Killebrew's memorial service Thursday night at Target Field, a man climbed quietly to the highest reaches of the left-center field seats.

In a mostly empty ballpark, with about 4,000 people sitting in the lower bowl between the bases, the scoreboard showed a video chronicling the 520-foot home run Killebrew hit at Met Stadium on June 3, 1967, off Lew Burdette.

Master of ceremonies Dick Bremer said only one seat in the new stadium sits 520 feet from home plate. That's where the mystery man was sitting. The cameras zoomed in, and there was Jim Thome, wearing a big smile and holding a game-used Killebrew jersey with No. 3.

It was a light moment on a night of tear-jerking tributes, with speeches and song, celebrating Killebrew's legacy on and off the field.

If the crowd seemed small, it was intimate and devoted, not unlike one of those late May weeknight crowds at Met Stadium from 1961 to 1974, when Killebrew was making memories in a Twins uniform.

"The thing that set Harmon apart was the trajectory of his home runs," former Twins pitcher Jim Kaat said. "There were two hitters in the American League who made you stop and say, 'Wow' -- Harm and Mickey Mantle."

Asked to describe one of Killebrew's 573 career home runs, Hall of Famer Hank Aaron summed it up with one word: "Majestic."

For years, Killebrew ranked fifth on the all-time homer list behind Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson.

"[Killebrew] was No. 1, really," Aaron said. "He hit 1,000 home runs because he did so many great things off the field."

The National Baseball Hall of Fame allowed Killebrew's iconic bronze plaque to be displayed on Target Plaza before the ceremony. Brad Horn, the Hall's senior director of communications, said the last time a plaque made a similar trip from Cooperstown, N.Y., came in 2002, when the Red Sox held their memorial for Ted Williams at Fenway Park.

This trip was particularly special for Horn. In 2008, he suddenly lost vision in his left eye. About twice a month, during that difficult time, Killebrew would call him offering encouragement.

"I've worked there for 10 years," Horn said. "He was my guy."

Countless Twins fans could relate.

Before the ceremony, Commissioner Bud Selig talked about what Killebrew meant not just to the Twins, but to all of baseball.

"He is a great lesson for future generations of baseball players," Selig said. "That's the way you're supposed to carry yourself. That's the way you're supposed to act."

So nine days after Killebrew died of esophageal cancer at age 74, the Twins held this televised memorial, with free admission.

About 45 of Killebrew's friends and family members were seated on the field, along with several Twins dignitaries.

"The first thing Harmon would say is, 'Wow, all this, just for me,' " Killebrew's wife, Nita said.

Yes, indeed. Hall of Famer Rod Carew said Killebrew used to call him Junior, and Carew used to call him Charlie. Choking up, Carew recalled his last visit to see Killebrew in Scottsdale, Ariz: "He said, 'I love you, Junior.' I said, 'Charlie, I will always love you, too.' "

By the time Nita Killebrew spoke, the crowd had heard Jim "Mudcat" Grant sing, "What a Wonderful World," along with speeches by Kaat, Selig, Carew, Paul Molitor and current Twins Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer.

Standing at the lectern between the pitching mound and second base, she remembered the way her husband would tease her about her fear of public speaking.

"Today, sweetheart, I want to make you proud," she said. "And just maybe, you will turn to Kirby Puckett and say, 'Hey, Puck, what do you know? Maybe she is coachable after all.' "

At speech's end, she roused the crowd into a standing ovation, urging them to join the fight by supporting the charity, Stand Up To Cancer.

"Harmon's body is at rest in his hometown of Payette [Idaho]," she said. "His soul is at peace in that big ballpark in the sky. But his heart will always be in Minnesota with you."

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