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TOM LAWRENCE: Killebrew's HR power contrasted with gentle nature

When you hear the name Harmon Killebrew, you think power. Towering home runs. Vicious line drives. Clutch RBIs. But if you were a fan of Killebrew, or if like me you were lucky enough to meet him, you also think of the word gentle. Because Killeb...

When you hear the name Harmon Killebrew, you think power.

Towering home runs. Vicious line drives. Clutch RBIs.

But if you were a fan of Killebrew, or if like me you were lucky enough to meet him, you also think of the word gentle. Because Killebrew, one of the strongest men in the history of baseball, a 5-11, 220-pound dynamo whose homers soared farther than almost any player's shots, was a soft-spoken, decent, friendly man.

Killebrew's death Tuesday at 74 from esophageal cancer is another sign of the end of an earlier, more innocent era of baseball, when players made less money and were closer to their fans. Killebrew didn't separate himself from the people who admired him and paid his salary, and maintained that even at the end, when he announced Friday he was entering hospice care, which he had long supported.

I was lucky enough to interview him on Jan. 26, 2005, when the Twins Winter Caravan came to Mankato, Minn., where I worked as an editor and columnist at the time.

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Killebrew was friendly and cooperative in an interview, discussing his career and baseball in general. He had been retired for 30 years but to fans, meeting him was like being introduced to a baseball god.

They approached him slowly, seeking a handshake or an autograph, and Killebrew provided both willingly. He listened to people lavish praise on him and lowered his head as he accepted it.

We discussed his final year in 1975 with the Kansas City Royals, my favorite team, and his disappointment that the Twins wouldn't allow him one last season.

The Killer, an unlikely nickname for such a nice man, showed a rare moment of bitterness when he talked about Bob Short, the former owner of the Texas Rangers.

Killebrew said Short had promised him the manager's job and then reneged. The anger in his voice over this three-decades-old slight was evident, and, to me, surprising.

But Killebrew didn't linger on bad moments. He was there to meet fans and promote Twins baseball and did so with a smile.

The Minnesota Twins have had many great players, including Bob Allison, Tony Oliva, Rod Carew, Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.

But Killebrew, the team's first star, continued to shine. His success on the field -- 573 home runs and admission to the Baseball Hall of Fame -- were part of the reason.

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His kind, modest personality, such a perfect fit for the Midwest, was just as much responsible for his enduring impact on fans.

On that bitterly cold night in 2005, Killebrew was in Mankato with other Twins' players and staffers, including Bert Blyleven, the former Twins pitcher and colorful TV announcer.

Blyleven was, well, very "colorful" backstage. His salty clubhouse language was evident, even with young and old fans present.

He seemed very respectful around Killebrew, though.

A story is told that during his rookie season in 1970, when he was just 19, Blyleven was on a bus trip with the Twins when the team stopped for dinner at a roadside restaurant that served alcohol.

As a minor, he couldn't eat with the rest of the team and the entourage, so he took his meal on the bus. One player joined him: Killebrew, who was the reigning Most Valuable Player in the American League at the time.

When news of Killebrew's entry into hospice care and impending death broke this weekend, the Minneapolis Star Tribune's website was filled with stories from fans.

One struck me. It wasn't about a big homer or a game-winning hit from the 1969 MVP.

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The fan wrote that he attended a game with his dad in the early 1960s and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. But he said it was a struggle getting to the ballpark, since his dad had polio and the walk through the parking lot was slow and painful.

On the way out, they waited for the crowd to thin and made their way to their car. Suddenly, another car stopped and a young man asked if he could offer them a ride.

It was Harmon Killebrew.

Former Twins star Torii Hunter, who said Killebrew served as a mentor to him on and off the field, captured the Twins' legend well:

"Harmon was a tremendous player, but is an even greater man."

That's what baseball fans are remembering, even more than the sky-scraping homers that Harmon hit. Rest in peace, Mr. Killebrew. You touched them all on the diamond -- and touched the millions who cheered for you.

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