Accomplishment and character


Inside the small farmhouse, a young couple enjoyed their first autumn living in the Missouri Ozarks. Orange leaves still left on the trees clung tightly to the twigs, resisting peer pressure to join piles already on the ground.

The more things stay the same, the more they change.

Two months earlier, the couple had unpacked their black-and-white TV in time to see President Nixon resign his office. Now, on this, the second day of October 1974, waves of pain in her womb informed the woman that her second child was due at any moment.

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On that same afternoon, 2,570 fans of the Minnesota Twins came out to Metropolitan Stadium to see the final game of the season. The neat thing about baseball is that even non-consequential games can provide fans with a glimpse of history-making, though we are often unaware of it at the time. Such was the case in this game.

The third-place Twins hosted the second-place Texas Rangers, two franchises with a common tie: They were both at one time known as the Washington Senators. The Rangers were managed by the fiery Billy Martin, who was a few years away from his volatile stints at the helm of the New York Yankees. Martin was, to say the least, different.

Take for instance that game in Minnesota. Martin allowed his ace pitcher, Fergie Jenkins, to bat in the designated hitter spot. The whole purpose of a DH was to keep pitchers from doing what they weren't good at-hitting. But when the Twins pitcher took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, it was Jenkins who broke through with the Rangers' first hit. He went on to score a run, helping Texas defeat the Twins 2-1.

On the mound, Jenkins was on the way to earning his 25th win of the season, an accomplishment that only three other pitchers have managed since then. With two outs and nobody on base in the in the bottom of the ninth, the Twins sent in a pinch-hitter who promptly struck out looking. The inning ended. The game ended. The season ended.

Most folks did not know it at the time, but that strikeout was the final at-bat, as a Twin, for Harmon Killebrew.

Killebrew carried his bat back to the dugout and packed it away for the winter. Though only 39 at the time, he was in his 21st season with the Senators/Twins organization. Everyone knew he was headed for the Hall of Fame (entered in 1984). He had by then accumulated 2,024 hits and 1,540 runs batted in, while smashing 559 home runs in what were pitching-dominant decades of baseball. He was a 13-time All-Star, the 1969 American League MVP, and led the Twins to the 1965 World Series, where they lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

But as it does with everyone, age had caught up with Killebrew. His stats were way down, and Twins management thought it was time for him to retire. It probably was, but Killebrew opted instead to sign on for a season with the Kansas City Royals.

I can't think of Kansas City without thinking of Rex Reeder, my grandpa. I bet he took note of the Killebrew acquisition. If something was in the news-printed or on TV-Grandpa took note of it. He drank his coffee black and read his Kansas City Star before the sun came up each day. Then, off to work. Yeah, I imagine that Grandpa enjoyed a ballplayer like Killebrew-someone with pluck and gristle.

Killebrew collected a few more hits and homers while with the Royals in 1975. He also watched a young player named George Brett have a breakout season. Then Killebrew retired.

Harmon Clayton Killebrew died of cancer on Tuesday. He was 74.

I have really enjoyed reading the many tributes (see here and here) written about Killebrew this week, as well as reading once again about his baseball feats (see here and here).

Killebrew was a kind man, known as much for his modesty and integrity as he was for his mammoth home runs and athletic intensity. Former Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda said of Killebrew, "If you wanted a kid looking up to somebody, you'd want it to be a guy like Harmon." Indeed, combining personal accomplishment with personal character is a sure recipe for being some kid's hero.

I never had the opportunity to meet Killebrew, or even to see him play. That last game he played as a Twin came on the day my mom went into labor with me.


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