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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.

mikkelsen yields two-run wallopp, ny times headline

As 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 baseball.

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 favored Mikkelsen.

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.

Silence.

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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 in.

“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 way.”

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.


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In a nine-day span, 17-year-old Harmon Killebrew went from painting his high school in Payette, Idaho, to being a member of a Major League team.


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