MINNEAPOLIS — For 14 seasons, Harmon Killebrew was the cleanup hitter for the Minnesota Twins, the ferocious slugger who used his incredible strength to knock baseballs out of the park.
At a memorial service on Thursday night for the Hall of Famer, who died last week at the age of 74 after a bout with esophageal cancer, Killebrew's shy, quiet wife, Nita, exhibited an entirely different, and perhaps even more impressive, kind of strength.
After heavy hitters like Rod Carew, Paul Molitor and Justin Morneau set the table with touching remarks, Nita took over the cleanup duties, delivering a powerful, tear-jerking thank you to about 4,000 fans, 45 relatives and dozens of former teammates and current Twins at Target Field.
"Thank you for loving my husband," said Nita, who detailed her husband's previous health problems that nearly claimed his life 20 years ago. "Thank you for healing his heart and his soul. Thank you for sharing him with me and giving so much to him so he had so much to give back to all of us.
"His body is at rest at his home in Payette. His soul is at peace in that big ballpark in the sky. But his heart will always be in Minnesota here with you."
Killebrew died on May 17, just a few days after issuing an incredible public statement acknowledging that he had lost his battle with cancer and was entering hospice care. He hit 573 home runs in his career, but was remembered as much for his gentlemanly nature off of the baseball diamond on Thursday night.
"Harmon had I don't know how many home runs," former home run king Hank Aaron said. "In his case, really, in all fairness to him, he was No. 1 really. He hit 1,000 home runs because he did so many great things off the field. That's what counts, it's not how you play the game, it's how you play it afterward."
Commissioner Bud Selig, Jim Kaat and Jim "Mudcat" Grant were among the dignitaries who made the trip to pay tribute to one of the most beloved players in Twins history, with Grant singing a stirring rendition of "What A Wonderful World."
"Harmon was as tough and feared a competitor on the field as the game has ever known. ... He was the dominant slugger of the 1960s," Selig said. "In this region of the country, Harmon Killebrew was the face of baseball and the game could not have been blessed with a better ambassador.
"Yet we all know the irony of his nickname, 'The Killer,' because as a human being he was just the opposite."
Michael Cuddyer and Morneau both spoke of Killebrew the mentor, telling funny stories about being chastised for their sloppy autographs early in their careers.
"Now write it so I can read it," Morneau remembered Killebrew telling him during their first meeting. "After a few hundred tries, he finally gave me the OK."
And Carew spoke of visiting Killebrew, who called Carew "Junior," in his final days. Carew called Killebrew "Charlie."
"No matter how many players pass through the Twins organization, there will only be one face of this organization and that's Harmon Killebrew," Carew said through tears. "Charlie, I know that you've taken a safe voyage. I love you, and I'll see you one day."
About an hour into the evening, emcee Dick Bremer spoke about Killebrew's famous 520-foot home run at the old Metropolitan Stadium in 1967.
The camera then panned up to a seat at the top of the Target Field outfield, 520 feet from home plate, to illustrate just how far Killebrew's ball traveled on that day.
Sitting in the seat, as far as you can possibly get from home plate, was a beaming Jim Thome, who passed Killebrew on the career home runs list last season. Thome waved the famous No. 3 jersey that Killebrew wore that season.
Then Nita stepped to the plate and hit one out of the stadium.
She spoke of Harmon teasing her for always being the one in the back of the room, shying away from the limelight that always followed her husband.
"Standing before a public crowd is certainly not my forte, but I promised Harmon I would do this," she said. "Today, sweetheart, I wanna make you proud and just maybe, just maybe, you will turn to Kirby Puckett and say, 'Hey Puck, what do you know, maybe she is coachable after all."
She finished her address by asking everyone in the ballpark to "Stand Up To Cancer," a show of support for the charitable organization dedicated to raising funds for cancer research.
Everyone did, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
"He was a gentleman to the end," Nita said. "Always composed, never complaining. If only you could have seen what I was blessed to have seen. ... I was truly honored to be his caregiver. He left me inspired, awed, amazed and humbled."
Jon Krawczynski on Twitter: http://twitter.com/APkrawczynski
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