Randy Hollis: Special Killebrew made others feel special, too

Published: Saturday, May 21 2011 7:59 p.m. MDT

Major League Baseball lost one of its all-time great sluggers — and all-time great guys — this past week with the passing of former Minnesota Twins first baseman Harmon Killebrew.

Killebrew, a humble farm boy from Idaho who could hit a baseball a country mile, hammered 573 home runs during his Hall of Fame career spanning 1959-75. He died last Tuesday at age 74 after battling esophageal cancer for the past few months.

And in the days since his death, tributes have continued to roll in all week long from those people who knew him best — former teammates and opposing players from his era, and current Major League players, coaches and managers — who've all had essentially the same thing to say about hammering Harmon.

As great a ballplayer as he was on the field, Killebrew was an even better person off the field.

Perhaps current Twins player Michael Cuddyer said it best.

"Strive to treat people the way he treated people, and make everybody feel comfortable, make everybody feel like they're special," Cuddyer was quoted in an Associated Press story. "For one of the biggest names in a sport to be able to make every single person he came into contact with feel special, that's a pretty big achievement."

I got a first-hand opportunity to witness Killebrew's kind, gentle way of making people feel special a few years ago when he visited a friend of mine, Roy resident Jim Bertagnolli, a terrific guy who'd been stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS),?a dread disease better known by its more common name, that of another Hall of Fame first baseman who was by all accounts a great guy that was pretty darned good with a baseball bat back in his day, too — Lou Gehrig.

Bertagnolli, who played high school baseball and instilled the love of the game in his athletic son and softball-playing daughters, had been robbed of his ability to walk, talk and eat by that time. He was being fed through a feeding tube in his stomach, and his life on this earth would end a few months later.

But when Killebrew came walking into the Bertagnollis' home that summer day in 2005, the Roy man's eyes lit up and he smiled a big, grateful smile as Killebrew shared a few joyous, emotion-filled minutes with Jim and his family.

It was, I'm sure, a moment that family will never forget.

Killebrew's visit was planned by Kellie Ulm of the VistaCare Hospice organization, which was helping the Bertagnolli family with Jim's health-care needs and was made aware of his great love for baseball. Killebrew had become the spokesperson for VistaCare Hospice in 1996.

Dr. Perry G. Fine, a professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine, got acquainted with Killebrew that same year while serving as the national medical director for VistaCare Hospice.

In visiting nursing homes, countless hospice patients and participating together in charity golf events over the years, Dr. Fine got a great opportunity to know the tremendous man behind the baseball legend.

In an email to the Deseret News a few days ago, Dr. Fine offered a sweet, sentimental remembrance of his friend, an excerpt of which follows:

"He rewarded everyone he met with a warm, kind smile and gentle voice — no bravado, just genuine appreciation at having been fortunate enough to 'live the dream' (of playing Major League baseball)," Dr. Fine wrote.

" ... Harmon, I — we — will miss you. Thank you for supporting hospice. You have made a positive difference in the lives of so many."

Indeed, little could Killebrew possibly have ever known or imagined that, a few years after brightening the last, dark days of Jim Bertagnolli and so many others, he himself would be the recipient of hospice care, which he had praised and served as a strong advocate ever since being treated for a life-threatening collapsed lung in 1990.

As one who has seen the wonderful hospice care which was provided for my own parents during their final days, I share Killebrew's deep gratitude and respect for the invaluable service, care and compassion which hospice caregivers have to offer.

It can certainly help lighten the burden of that final journey "home" for all of us — even a beloved Hall of Famer.

email: rhollis@desnews.com

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