True Heroes Never Die

Yes, this is a second Harmon Killebrew memorial post at Knuckleballs, but I just feel compelled to share my own thoughts about Harmon.

I was three years old in the summer of 1959 when my dad got a coaching job in southern Minnesota. Two years later, the Washington Senators relocated to the Twin Cities and, with them, came Harmon Killebrew. To a young boy like me at the time, Killebrew was larger than life. My family might only make one or two trips a year up to see games at Metropolitan Stadium, but we watched Killebrew and his team mates on television every summer, all summer long.

It’s not surprising that he became my hero… my sports idol. He was the player I wanted to be “like”. But then, he was the guy we all wanted to be like. While we kids didn’t probably notice it so much at the time, his gentle and gracious demeanor towards media, fans and pretty much everyone he encountered probably resulted in him being the guy our parents hoped we would all grow up to be “like”.

Through the subsequent decades, we’ve seen one superstar after another capture our attention (and the attention of our kids) with their remarkable talents, only to turn out to be the kind of person off the field that we would never want our children to idolize. Charles Barkley even made a lot of money from his “I am not a role model” mantra.

As parents,  we’ve had to constantly remind our children that their sports heroes are “human” and they may not always be the nicest guys off the field. Spend even a single day at any Major League spring training camp (yes, including the Twins’) and you’re going to see examples of what I’m talking about. We all have had to remind our kids that their sports heroes are not “real” heroes. It’s OK to love the way they play a game, but “real” heroes are people who live their lives up to certain ethical standards and just because a person can hit a baseball 450 feet, we can’t assume he lives his life in a manner worthy of being considered a hero.

I’ve always felt a bit sad for all the kids who have grown up worshiping this home run hitter or that quarterback or this other power forward, only to realize as they get older that their hero actually was more than a little bit of a jerk. It’s just sad when a kid eventually even feels embarrassed for having admired a particular superstar. Maybe he used drugs. Maybe he abused his wife or kids, or maybe he was just a really crappy human being. I suppose there’s a lesson to be learned by kids in that situation that helps them understand the nature of human frailties. If so, it’s a lesson I’m glad I never had to learn… at least in that manner.

My hero understood and embraced his place as a role model. I’m sure Harmon Killebrew made mistakes in his life. We all do. But I’m not aware of any sports figure of his stature who has had a reputation for class and graciousness the way Killebrew has. Listen to his team mates. Listen to current players who were privileged to spend time around him as they came up in the Twins organization. Listen to people in the Twins organization that he worked with. Listen to members of the media.

I’m midway through my sixth decade on this earth and I’m still as proud as I’ve ever been to say Harmon Killebrew was my hero.

Harmon lost his battle with cancer this week and that means we won’t see him at Target Field any more, other than in a bronzed likeness. It means those of us who make the trip to spring training won’t see him around the batting cage talking with today’s players. It’s sad and our thoughts and prayers are with his family as they mourn his passing.

But Harmon will live on. When you get a legible autograph from Michael Cuddyer or one of the other Twins players that Killebrew taught to sign their names properly, Harmon will be there. When you come away from a night at a Twins Caravan impressed with how “fan friendly” the Twins players were, Harmon was there. Whenever you see an athlete conduct him or her self with class and willingly and openly embrace his or her place as a role model for young fans, Harmon will be there.

Harmon Killebrew was my hero. He was a real hero. Real heroes live on in the hearts and lives of the millions of people they touched during their time among us.

Real heroes never die.


(Photo: @MinnesotaTwins)