(Associated Press file photo)
Whenever I go to a new ballpark, I like to find out a little history about the place. One of the things I want to know is who hit the longest ball, and where it landed.
In my early years of covering baseball, in stadiums that are mostly now long gone, I heard the same two names, over and over. If it was a National League park, Willie Stargell. And if it was an American League park — old Cleveland Municipal, or Tiger Stadium, or, naturally, Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn., — the old-timers would point to some impossibly distant seat and tell about the time Harmon Killebrew hit it out there.
Killebrew was from my generation of baseball — one of the elites, the cornerstones, the hallowed names, right up close (in my memory, at least) with Aaron and Mays and Mantle. I used to pay Killer the ultimate respect by putting his baseball card in the special box I reserved for the most sainted superstars. And so it hit hard today when I got off my flight from Baltimore to Cleveland, powered up, and read this statement from Killebrew in my e-mail queue, issued by the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown:
“It is with profound sadness that I share with you that my continued battle with esophageal cancer is coming to an end. With the continued love and support of my wife, Nita, I have exhausted all options with respect to controlling this awful disease. My illness has progressed beyond my doctors’ expectation of cure.
I have spent the past decade of my life promoting hospice care and educating people on its benefits. I am very comfortable taking this next step and experiencing the compassionate care that hospice provides.
I am comforted by the fact that I am surrounded by my family and friends. I thank you for the outpouring of concern, prayers and encouragement that you have shown me. I look forward to spending my final days in comfort and peace with Nita by my side.”
It’s doubly sad because I’ve had the opportunity to meet and interview Killebrew on a few occasions, and found him to be — you’re going to hear this a lot in the coming days — one of the most gracious, humble and down-to-earth superstars you’re ever going to meet. He was also, in a way, one of us, a Northwesterner from little Payette, Idaho, probably the greatest athlete to ever come out of the Gem State.
Killebrew’s legend, of course, will live on, in the memories he provided those of us fortunate to witness him in his prime, and tangibly as the model for the MLB logo. It’s his silhouette you see, just as Jerry West was the model for the NBA logo. The artist, according to legend, had Killebrew in mind when he drew a hitter with bat cocked, ready to pounce on a baseball. Killewbrew could hit with the best of them, and that wasn’t even his greatest strength. He was, by every account, a Hall of Fame human being.