Sunday, May 15, 2011

Killebrew Announcement Elicits Memories of '68

The Number 3 jersey of former Minnesota Twins Hall
of Fame baseball player Harmon Killebrew hangs in the
Twins' dugout Friday. (Photo by Jim Moore/AP)

By Paul Kennedy
May 14, 2011
Fox Sports Florida

Harmon Killebrew announced his Long Goodbye yesterday, a stout slugger and baseball hero to a generation, now taken down by esophageal cancer. The fight nearly done, bidding my boyhood farewell from hospice.

The year was 1968, one unlike any other Washington, D.C., or this teenager at the time, had ever seen. Marshall Law had been declared in our capital that April morning, mere days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the spilling anger of the streets.

The response was troop carriers, choppers overhead, and armed soldiers on foot patrol. It looked like Viet Nam and Tet, mere months earlier.

My Dad and I were just going to see a baseball game. The Presidential Opener at D.C. Stadium. Killebrew and the Minnesota Twins. Frank Howard and the Washington Senators.

President Lyndon Johnson was determined — in a show of force and demonstrated security — the game would be played.

My career military father took me out of school and off we drove, through the green clad soldiers to the green fresh grass of a brand new Major League season.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a Minnesotan, would throw out the ceremonial first pitch. And there he was, surrounded by more than 32,000 fans, including a kid and his Dad with centerfield seats who saw it all.

Babe Ruth once wore number 3. Killebrew, too, had number 3 across his strapping back that day and throughout his Hall of Fame career. A bull of a man, sledge-hammering batting practice pitches. And 500 feet away in upper deck awe, a 14 year old discerned greatness.

Before steroids and a rabble of impostors shattered the purity of statistics, the pantheon of slugging greats were America's sporting heroes. Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, and Killebrew. Harmon belted, launched, blasted, crushed, jacked, and slammed 573 home runs, the last of which came 40 years ago this August.

If you don't think four decades can go by in the blink of an eye, wait. Just wait.

Long before cable networks and joined-in-progress cut ins, there were few nightly highlights on the news from coast-to-coast. You either saw the Saturday Game of the Week, scored a ticket and witnessed the immortals walk the diamond in person, or you grabbed the morning newspaper at the breakfast table and delved into the box scores.

I found the one for this day on-line. Reading the names and scanning through the lyrical innings of five decades past, this was a Shakespearean play returning to life.

The hurlers were among the Glory of Their Times. Two 20-game aces in their prime, Dean Chance and Camilio Pascual drew the start. In the 6th, Harmon crushed his first home run of the season deep to left off Pascual, a regal Cuban and longtime Killebrew teammate with the old Senators and in the Twin Cities before returning to D.C.

That blast would be the only one Killebrew's club needed. Chance went the distance with a four hit shutout, fanning eight without issuing a walk. Brilliant, yes, but all I remembered was Killebrew. His power and presence.

There was Tony O and Hondo, Tony Oliva and Howard. Bob Allison and Mike Epstein. A 2-0 finish. A game that took but 2:02 to play. A season to come. Many years ahead for all.

Except for my Dad, now in Arlington National Cemetery. That would be our last Presidential Opener together, for he died in August. Every spring, when the Boys of Summer return, I think of him, of Harmon Killebrew, of 1968. And now Harmon is leaving, too.

Killebrew had blasted 44 home runs in the Summer of Love in '67. He would reign as the American League MVP a year later in baseball's centennial of '69. Ironically, as it was for all of this nation, 1968 was filled with problems.

Named to an eighth All-Star game, this the first to be played indoors in the Astrodome, Harmon ruptured a hamstring on the carpet. He'd need seven months of rehabilitation and would finish the season with only 17 home runs.

When I saw him again in D.C., again from afar at the '69 All-Star game, it was in the re-christened Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. For you see, America had lost another leader. Those were the times.

Killebrew and Twins would later move into a domed home in the chill of the upper Midwest, named for their senior senator who threw out the pitch that day and would lose that autumn's presidential election.

And for the coming generation, the Twin Cities team would continue to hold spring training in Orlando. At Tinker Field, build in honor of the Cubs immortal shortstop, Joe, who adopted Central Florida after leaving Evers and Chance.

The kid in the centerfield seats, by the way, loved stadiums and the roar of crowds so much he became a broadcaster. Orlando is now his home, not far from that ballpark.

Many of the sunny snapshots of Harmon and talented Minnesota teams were taken at Tinker. You can pick 'em out instantly. The Twins have long since moved on, and grandstand and diamond now are mostly quiet and sun drenched.

Occasionally a high school contest or adult league fun-in-the-sun game requiring chalk lines to be drawn and the infield attended. There, too, with the birds and the sky is a granite bust of legendary Twins owner Clark Griffith still on display, just inside the unlocked gates.

It is a good place to say goodbye, to the promise of spring, the heroes of our youth, and a boyhood that once crossed paths with a slugger named honest Harmon Killebrew.

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