Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Good Luck, Harmon

[Originally posted December 31, 2010]

The older kids next door were Minnesota Twins fans, so I was too. They revered the Twins' clean-up hitter, Harmon Killebrew, and I adopted the benevolent slugger from Idaho who wore No. 3 as my boyhood hero.

Long before the Internet emerged as a news and entertainment medium, well before the demand for 24/7 sports coverage spawned multiple cable channels, back in the day when over-the-air game broadcasts in Upstate New York were limited to a single NBC Game of the Week on Saturday afternoons and, if we were lucky, a Mets or Yankees home game on Sundays, my friends and I somehow knew everything about our favorite players.

(It helped that my fourth and fifth grade teachers wheeled the school's A/V television set into our classroom during afternoon World Series games -- imagine that happening today! -- and guided our acquisition of critical knowledge.)

Every day, we would devour the box scores in the Schenectady Gazette, scanning those treasure-troves of matrixed data for hints of outsized performances from the previous evening's contests. We'd find our favorite teams and players' names and examine the columns headed "ab r h bi" for indications of productive nights at the plate. Two or three hits were cause for celebration; two or three RBIs, even moreso. If a player had both runs and RBI's, he had almost certainly crushed the ball at least once, perhaps launching a hanging curve into orbit or clearing the bases with a double.

How much sunnier the world seemed on a day when Harmon Killebrew's line read "4 2 2 3" rather than "4 0 0 0". Both occurred frequently.

Killebrew went down with a hamstring injury while playing first base in the 1968 All-Star contest. California Angels' shortstop Jim Fregosi may have thrown the ball low to my baseball hero and ended his season, but I swear I'm over my grudge by now. I imagine that No. 3, reputedly a gentleman of the game, never held a grudge in his life.

Killebrew was a terrific role model for this hero-worshipping Little Leaguer. His incredible 1969 MVP season, when he led the league with 49 home runs and 140 RBIs, shone (and still shines) like gold in my imagination. When he homered in the 1971 All-Star Game, one of six A.L. sluggers to mash the potato that day, I enjoyed his triumph as if it were my own. When Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto, mocking Killebrew's extensive girth, once noted that he had rounded third and headed for home "like a hippopotamus heading for water," I bore the fat-kid insult with him, knowing that he would have laughed it off. His baseball nickname, "Killer", never really fit his reserved, genial personality.

I arranged the baseball posters in my bedroom to depict Bob Gibson pitching to Harmon Killebrew.

As the ball drops in Times Square tonight, ushering in a Happy New Year for 2011, word comes from the Associated Press that Killebrew, now 74, is battling esophageal cancer. His public statement disclosing his condition sounds just like his interviews from back-in-the-day; simple words, a frank assessment, optimism, appreciation for those who appreciate him, a plea for privacy. Dignified, as always.

Also, fan-friendly. As a young fan, I once wrote a letter to Killebrew, c/o the Minnesota Twins, and asked for an autograph. A few weeks later, a signed black-and-white photo arrived in the mail; the inscription read, "To Bob, Good luck, Harmon Killebrew".

Indeed, I've had pretty good luck. Many days I'll wind up with a "4 0 0 0" line, but sometimes I'll get a hit or two, metaphorically speaking, and even a couple of RBIs now and then. It's high time for me to return the favor:

Mr. Killebrew, here's wishing you peace, comfort, and excellent outcomes from your medical treatments that lead to renewed good health. Thanks for years and years of very happy baseball memories, for serving as a personal role model, and above all, for your simple dignity.

Good luck,

Bob Wait

* * *

Epilogue: Harmon Clayton Killebrew passed away on the morning of May 17, 2011. A staunch advocate of hospice care since the time of an earlier, life-threatening ailment, Mr. Killebrew's last public statement said, "I am very comfortable taking this next step and experiencing the compassionate care that hospice provides...I look forward to spending my final days in comfort and peace with [my wife] Nita by my side."


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