Your heroes often change as you get older because the things that are most important to you tend to change as you go through life.
As a sports-loving kid, I was drawn to athletes and teams that exuded glitz, swagger, and showmanship. Cool-sounding names and fancy uniforms with colors I liked were a nice bonus. How my sports idols played the game, how they treated other people, what they stood for, etc., didn't hold much value for me.
Yes, I was a pretty shallow 12-year-old. It was style over substance for me. Today, as a weathered adult, it's just the opposite. I value substance much more than style.
That's why Harmon Killebrew became an idol of mine in middle age. Killebrew, who passed away in 2011, was the whole package, a Hall of Fame athlete and a Hall of Fame person.
As a kid, I certainly knew about the Minnesota Twins' Harmon Killebrew. He was a perennial All-Star and famous home run hitter. I definitely wanted to collect his baseball card. But I wasn't really drawn to him.
My view of Killebrew changed dramatically when I met him at an Old Timers' game in the 1980s. I was "covering" the game for a local magazine. During batting practice, I walked around the field and spent some time hanging out in the dugout. Most of the old timers, not surprisingly, didn't even acknowledge my presence. Killebrew, on the other hand, actually came over to me and struck up a conversation, as if I was Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, or another of his peers.
The fact Killebrew did that wouldn't surprise Nita, his wife, who once said, "Everybody was somebody to Harmon."
Harmon Killebrew was by far the nicest and classiest athlete I've ever met. He was the ultimate teammate and a consummate pro.
"Everybody knew him because he was the home run king," said former Twin Tony Oliva. "I know him better, and I think he was a better person than ballplayer."
Long after he retired, young players in the Minnesota Twins organization, who never actually saw him play, grew to revere him.
"As a human being, Harmon Killebrew was at the top," said former Twin Michael Cuddyer. "He was a great person. He treated everyone the same, no matter what their status in life was. I'm trying to live my life that way."
When Cuddyer left the Twins and signed a three-year contract to play for the Colorado Rockies, he chose to wear uniform number three -- Killebrew's number -- to honor his mentor.
"I'm going to wear his jersey number as a daily reminder of what he stood for, on and off the field," says Cuddyer. "When I put my Rockies jersey on, I will have two reminders. "Colorado" on the front will remind me to play hard, and to strive to win the right way with my new teammates. And the No. 3 on the back will remind me to conduct myself as a teammate and human being like Harmon Killebrew did."
When Cuddyer was a young player he learned a lesson from Killebrew he'll never forget. Cuddyer was at an autograph show with Killebrew and was scribbling his name on fan items like a lot of modern-day ballplayers do when they are asked for an autograph. Killebrew noticed Cuddyer's sloppiness and calmly, politely, but firmly, told the young Cuddyer he should do everything the right way, including signing his name legibly as a matter of respect for the fans.
"Every single autograph I have signed since then, I have heard Harmon in my head saying, 'If you are going to take the time to sign your name, you better make sure people can read it,'" says Cuddyer.
Killebrew was a great role model for kids. He didn't smoke or drink. And on the field, he was the epitome of sportsmanship. He played hard but fair, and he never showed up an opponent. Postgame, instead of heading to the bar, he would often go out for a milkshake.
After his playing days ended, he was a broadcaster for a time. He also coached and dabbled in the insurance, financial securities, and automobile businesses.
But his driving desire was to give back. He helped start the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, whose mission is to not only connect former players, but to promote the game of baseball, raise money for charities, inspire and educate youth through positive sport images, and protect the dignity of the game through former players. Killebrew lived that mission.
Beyond the baseball field, Killebrew's lasting legacy will be the impact he had on others' lives through his community and charitable endeavors. He started the Harmon Killebrew Foundation in honor of his mother who told him growing up "we are here to help each other, son."
Nearly 40 years ago, he started a memorial golf tournament in honor of his former Minnesota teammate, Danny Thompson, who died of leukemia at 26. The tournament raises funds to find a cure for leukemia and cancer. To date, the tournament has raised more than $13 million for this important cause.
A favorite charitable project of Killebrew's was raising funds to build Miracle League fields for physically disadvantaged children.
Harmon Killebrew was a baseball legend for his exploits on the field alone. But he rests on a higher perch in American sports annals due to the way he lived his life. He was a perfect example of sportsmanship, character, class and giving back.
There's currently a fledgling campaign to get Harmon Killebrew's image on a U.S. stamp. Young athletes, parents and coaches need to know about Harmon Killebrew, how he played the game, and the principles he stood for.
"Harmon was a hall of famer on and off the field," said Baseball Hall of Fame president, Jeff Idelson. "He was baseball's version of Paul Bunyan, with his prodigious home run power, leading by example in the clubhouse and on the field. Off the field, he emanated class, dignity and warmth, and he was a great humanitarian. He was so down-to-earth, you would never realize he was a baseball legend. It's ironic that his nickname was 'Killer,' as he was one of the nicest, most generous individuals to ever walk the Earth."
That sure sounds like somebody worthy of being honored on a U.S. postage stamp.
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