CHAPTER EIGHT (continued, page 3)
It was Killebrew´s habit to stand perfectly straight in the batter´s
box and take one or two gentle half-swings, then bring the bat back to
his shoulder, his hands tight against his chest in the manner of a man
trying to keep himself warm. He used a 33-ounce bat, about the norm
for a major-leaguer, even though Killebrew was stronger than most.
the pitcher began his motion, Killebrew would push his hands and that
narrow-grained bat away from his chest as if liquid had begun to leak
from the bottom and he didn´t want it to drip onto his shoes. His knees
would flex and the number 3 on his back would stretch tight as his back
rounded, but he stood perfectly still in that pose as the ball left the
pitcher´s hand. Then he brought his hands in and down and lashed at
the ball, using his powerful hips to drive into the pitch. Unlike Henry
Aaron or Ernie Banks, Killebrew was not a wrist hitter; he was more
like Babe Ruth. Harmon Killebrew took a vicious, lumberjack´s cut at a
Mikkelsen worked a two-ball, two-strike count before Killebrew
looped that swing through the strike zone and fouled off Mikkelsen's
change-up. Mikkelsen had confidence in this pitch as well as his sinker,
so he threw another palm ball, hoping the slugger would time the pitch
incorrectly and swing too early. Killebrew took the pitch, which was
called a ball, to make the count three balls and two strikes. The Yankees
preferred not to walk Killebrew, which would move Rollins into scoring
position and force right-handed Mikkelsen to face left-handed, streakhitting
Mincher, who was sizzling.
Mincher had homered twice Friday
and driven in three runs on Saturday. Keane had seen this situation
before, last October, when Mikkelsen faced a hot-hitting left-hander
with two runners on base. He certainly did not want to put Killebrew
on for Mincher to recreate the scenario that led to McCarver´s blast the
previous October. In addition, Killebrew was right-handed, so the matchup
Yankee catcher Elston Howard called for a fastball to end the three-and-a-half hour struggle. There was a healthy breeze blowing toward
Killebrew from left field; otherwise the belt-high fastball that never sank
might have gone farther than 380 feet. It was the agonizingly loud smack
of wood on horsehide that hit Elston Howard's eardrums. The ball jetted
toward the stands, almost as if Killebrew had lit a short fuse on a
Fourth of July pop bottle rocket. It was not the typical Killebrew Fly
that featured a majestic parabolic arch. The ball was still rising when it
crashed into the left-field pavilion.
Had this happened? Had Killebrew hit a two-out, two-run homer
on a 3-2 pitch to beat the Yankees heading into the All-Star break? Was
this team going to the World Series? The crowd erupted, screaming,
applauding and stamping its feet on the stands, as had become the custom
when the Met Stadium regulars wanted to display their appreciation
enthusiastically. The cantilevered triple deck behind home plate
shook from the thunderous pounding.
Killebrew circled third base as
Rollins crossed home plate, then turned to wait and congratulate
Killebrew. Two fans in straw pork-pie hats ran onto the field to aid the
celebration as Killebrew planted a cleated foot onto home plate and
headed for the dugout.
Seven-year-old Kenny Killebrew was often in
the Twins clubhouse, and he greeted his father as the players marched
That was a nice home run you hit, daddy.
Killebrew enjoyed some watermelon as reporters surrounded him.
He recalled hitting a game-winning home run a year earlier against the
Yankees´ Al Downing at the Met. It hadn´t received much reaction. I
guess it´s where we are in the standings that makes the difference,
Killebrew said, but he did admit his 288th career home run was one of
the sweeter of the sweet. I knew when I hit it that it was going a long
The home run was considered the most dramatic big fly in the
history of the Minnesota Twins until Kirby Puckett deposited Charlie
Liebrandt´s change-up into the Metrodome seats in the sixth game of
the 1991 World Series against Atlanta.
Killebrew´s home run abruptly
halted the days when fans called him Harmless Harmon. He became
the most loved Minnesota Twin in club history until Puckett came along,
but during Kenny Killebrew's seven years, his dad's career could hardly
be reduced to numbers on the back of a baseball card. Killebrew´s career
had twinkled and faded so often that carrying the team as a star ballplayer
had to be simple compared to what he had carried since he left home in
1954 as a 17-year-old bonus baby.
For starters, he languished in the major
leagues for two seasons on the Washington Senators´ bench.