Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Killer in name only

See that autograph? It's beautiful, wonderful in its simplicity. Unlike the scribbles so common when other athletes sign items, there's no doubt whatsoever who that signature belongs to.

That was a point of pride for Harmon Killebrew, that his signature be easy for fans to read. It was a simple gesture, but it was an important one to him, so much so that he made a point to lecture future Twins players on the importance of a legible autograph.

That, in a nutshell, explains the kind of person Harmon Killebrew was. He was endlessly polite, always accommodating. Despite his stature as the greatest and most iconic player in Twins history, he always found time for everybody associated with the Twins, from their fans to their current players to minor league prospects fresh out of high school. Nobody was beneath Killebrew. He had a kind word for all.

Killebrew was already an established star when the Senators moved to Minnesota in 1961, so he instantly became the face of the Twins. For the next 13 years, he was a fixture in the Twins lineup, a constant presence in the cleanup spot even as he was bouncing around the field defensively. He made the Twins instantly legitimate, and they were almost always competitive when he was in the lineup. But it was Killebrew's life after baseball that made him stand out.


Like most Minnesotans from my generation, my first hero was Kirby Puckett. He was the size of a teenager but had the heart of a giant, and he seemed like the perfect example of what it meant to be a humble, down-to-earth superstar. He was to my generation what Killebrew was to my father's, and it was an appropriate comparison, because it seemed Kirby was following perfectly the model that Killebrew had set before him.

When Kirby was forced to retire early because of glaucoma, the state plunged into mourning. It seemed cruel - our hero, our Kirby, forced to quit the only thing he loved. But after the tears stopped flowing, the truth started to come out. The allegations of domestic abuse. The sexual misconduct charges. The infidelity. Turns out Kirby wasn't such a great guy after all.

Sports stars have a long history of making fans feel shameful for looking up to them as heroes. A lot of times, it seems like star athletes go out of their way to remind us that they aren't necessarily the best role models, that they, too, are human. Still, we thought Kirby was different. We thought he was the exception to the stereotype of the athlete-as-poor-role-model. We couldn't have been more wrong.

That's what made Killebrew so different. Instead of destroying his reputation after his career, he seemed to enhance it. Here he was, the 10th most prolific home run hitter of all time, and he kept showing up to Twins fan fests to sign autographs and chat. He kept going to spring training to tutor the new up-and-coming Twins. He kept making trips to the ballpark every season, interacting with fans, even though he was under no obligation to do so.

Over time, Harmon Killebrew stopped being a Minnesota Twins legend and became Minnesota's unofficial grandfather. You would see his big smile, his bald head, his rather pedestrian-looking 5-foot-10 frame, and you wouldn't think he was a baseball legend. You'd think he was your grandpa, the one wearing a custom-made jersey to honor his favorite player from the past. Just a humble, down-to-earth man who almost seemed uncomfortable with all the attention heaped on him.

I'm sad that I never got to meet him. I wish I could say that I got that autograph one year down at spring training, but I didn't. One day, when Nicci was a waitress at a sports bar, one of her tables left that behind on accident. Still, though, we cherish it. It's something I look forward to passing down to Aric some day.

When Puckett died far too young in 2006, Minnesota went into mourning. We forgot about his post-baseball life for a week or so and just fell into sadness for our hero, taken too soon.

Now Harmon's left us. Fortunately, he got to live a full, happy life, but that doesn't make it any less sad. But it's different kind of mourning with him. Because he last played in a game in 1974, many Minnesotans aren't remembering him as a ballplayer. We're instead remembering him as our unofficial grandpa. Even if we never met him, we're happy he was in our lives and we're sad to see him go.

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