Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Passed Away Resulting from Cancer: Poh Nikbar May

Harmon Killebrew

Harmon Killebrew spent 22 seasons in Major League Baseball, mostly with the Minnesota Twins, and racked up 573 home runs and one American League MVP. He was ranked fifth on the all-time home run list for nearly 30 years. He has since been passed by six ballplayers, with only Jim Thome and my idol Ken Griffey, Jr., as likely the only two never to have used performance-enhancing drugs.

I read several articles today about Harmon, with each initially focusing on his baseball career, and then transforming into a story about his kindness. I never saw him play or really got to know him, but Jim Caple and Joe Posnanski affirm what I suspected: Harmon was a wonderful human being.

In the summer of 2003, after receiving my umbilical cord stem cell transplant at the University of Minnesota, the Twins organization offered me and my family a press box for a game against my favorite team, the Baltimore Orioles. My immune system was vulnerable, so we had our own secluded space. It was a promo game with each fan receiving a Harmon Killebrew baseball card. Harmon was in attendance, and visited people all around the stadium. He came to our press box.

At 5’11”, Harmon was no giant, but was bulky and clearly a powerful man, even at 67 years old. His nickname during his playing days was “Killer,” which presented an intimidating perception. That perception faded immediately. He spent over twenty minutes in our private box—meaning he spent an entire inning visiting one family in a building with thousands of them, just because I was in a bad way and he wanted to make a difference.

I was never one to believe in a support team, or needing external motivation to deal with cancer and its treatment. But I can say this: when I met Harmon I was in a rapid health decline with no end in sight, medication that wasn’t working, and a physical appearance that made me feel like a Sick Kid. Spending time with the Hall of Fame slugger lifted my spirits, and if nothing else gave me a good story to tell. I acknowledge the possibility that Harmon aided in my recovery. He surely tried to.

Harmon was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in December 2010, and began treatment. Just four days ago he announced that he was ending treatment—he had lost his battle with cancer, he knew, and would soon end his life. He passed away this morning at the age of 74, leaving behind 9 children, 23 grandchildren, 2 great grandchildren, and many somber fans.
Benjamin Rubenstein with Harmon Killebrew in University of Minnesota press box