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Sunday, August 14, 2011

An afternoon in Asbury with "Killer"

Early in my career, I was barely lucky to meet anyone famous. Covering high school and college sports events were nice and all, but they weren't the whole reason I wanted to become a writer.

Sure, it's easy to say that anybody with anything to say can make for a decent story. This concept I understood, but I really didn't want to be just a high school and college sports writer for the Ocean County Observer.

I wanted more. I was enviable of any of the Asbury Park Press people who got to cover the Mets or Yankees or Giants or Jets or Nets. Former Observer photographer Chris Troyano had press passes to an NBA game at Byrne Arena on a Friday night off from work in March 1986 for the two of us to do a New Jersey Nets-Chicago Bulls game. He got to shoot the game, I got to sit on press row at 19 years old and it was surreal to me ... to any 19-year-old for that matter.

Of course, the great Michael Jordan was playing for the Bulls, but not in this game. He was out with a foot injury, so the Bulls of coach Stan Albeck were rendered helpless in a 118-107 loss that night. But Chris needed to get back to Toms River, so I never got to go to the locker room afterward.

My taste of that first professional sports event was not all it was cut out to be. I continued to be the good soldier, biding my time until something "bigger" came along.

In the summmer of 1986, that "bigger" came along. My dad was working in Asbury Park at the time at the Berkeley-Carteret Hotel in management and the hotel was associated with the legendary Convention Hall across the way. So whatever was going on at Convention Hall, my dad could have access to it.

This included the "Baseball On The Boardwalk" series run by a man named Ed Walsh. Because of my father, I had an in to do any interviews with any of the former Major League stars who came into Asbury Park and I got to interview these players, either during their signing or afterward.

I still remember the first one of these interviews I got to do. It was Henry Aaron, who came into Asbury Park on Saturday, August 16, 1986. The interview felt awkward, though, because I knew Henry Aaron to be a lot more jovial and outward in other interviews. Mainly, I think, because he was having to pay attention to what items he was signing and the conversations he was having with those there to meet him, we never truly hit it off.

So it went OK, but not quite like I thought. Then in the next set of shows, it was Lenny Dykstra five days after the Mets won the World Series. Judging from the huge throngs of people that were there -- and Dykstra's attitude of being there that day -- there was no way I was going to get any time with him. Walsh invited me back on that Sunday to talk with a true legend ... Brooklyn Dodgers great Duke Snider. I came back the next day, Snider was an absolute gentleman, and I had a wonderful story for the next day's edition of the paper.

Now it was the summer of 1987. I was a week home from being in Delaware for four days and the disastrous end to the Toms River Junior League All-Star team's run in the Mid-Atlantic Tournament, and less than a week after my first girlfriend had told me she didn't want to go out with me anymore.

Yeah, those are a few days I sadly have to take with me to my grave: Watching a team I covered stumble and fumble away a chance to advance in tournament play, then seeing your first girlfriend drop a hammer on you like that. I had no idea of how to handle the latter more than the former.

So that weekend, I needed something to pick me up. And on this particular day, Saturday, August 15, 1987, the attraction at Convention Hall was not just any legend in to sign autographs.

It was Harmon Killebrew, the "Killer" as he was known in his days with the Minnesota Twins. But "Killer" was only his personna on a baseball field. Off of it, I had heard nothing but incredible things about this man. It was Killebrew who a decade earlier had organized an annual charity golf event involving former Twins teammate Danny Thompson, a shortstop with a lot of star potential who passed away from leukemia at 29 in 1976.

So that afternoon, Convention Hall was packed nicely -- not quite the zoo that it was the previous November 1 when Dykstra was in town. They were there to see "Killer," who had been taking time away from his duties in helping the Minnesota Twins broadcast team (who were in Minnesota for a weekend series with Seattle, I believe).

I made my way through the crowd until I recognized Walsh. We said our hellos and he brought me on stage like he had for Aaron and Snider the year before. I knew the deal. Apparently, "Killer" had been told that I was doing a story on him and the day in Asbury Park and he greeted me with a warm smile and said, "Nice to meet you."

That, at least, got the whole thing started right. He continued to sign autographs, keep a smile that never suggested it was strictly on automatic pilot for the fans, and held worthy conversations with the paying customers, while taking the occasional picture.

All the while, he continued to hold a conversation with me. I was more interested in his humble beginnings, not just the fact he was a star player at Payette High School in Idaho, but he was signed as one of those "bonus babies" in the 1950s that forced him to sit on a Major League Baseball bench at 17, 18 years old and wouldn't allow him to hone his skills in the minor leagues.

"Back in those days, the minimum salary was $6,000," he started. "I signed for three years for $6,000 a year, which was $18,000, plus a bonus of $4,000 a year for three years, which was a $12,000 bonus. Anything over the minimum salary was considered a bonus contract, and you had to stay with the ball club for two years under the old rules of baseball.

"I was only 17 when I signed and went right into the major leagues. I couldn't go to the minor leagues because of the rules. It didn't help the player and it didn't help the ball club, either. You could only learn by playing every day."

Which was awkward to Killebrew. Here he was at 17, 18 years old sitting the bench for the cellar-dweller Washington Senators, not able to really hone his skills that he could have done playing in the minors. For three seasons, he got 202 at-bats and had 42 hits, nine of which were home runs.

In 1957, he broke free to hit 29 home runs and knock in 101 RBI as an everyday player -- in Chattanooga, the Triple-A affiliate of the Senators. He came back to the Senators and by 1959, he established himself as a ferocious power hitter, belting 42 home runs and knocking in 105 runs.

Then came the 1960s, and when the Senators moved to Minnesota and became the Twins, both the franchise and Killebrew took off. In 1965, the Twins lost to the Sandy Koufax-led Los Angeles Dodgers in a dramatic seven-game World Series. But 1969 belonged to Killer. In helping the Billy Martin-managed Twins to the American League West championship, Killebrew blasted 49 home runs and drove in 140 runs to win AL Most Valuable Player honors.

But believe it or not, Killebrew was determined to have a great '69 season after he missed the second half of the '68 season with a severe hamstring pull after he unsuccessfully did the splits fielding a ball at first base in the 1968 All-Star Game in Houston.

"The dirt gave away (in the Astrodome) and I came right over the top of my leg and did a split. I pulled some things around the knee and I ruptured the covering of the hamstring muscle. And then I pulled something right out of the pelvis. I did a lot of hard work over the winter. If you want to say an injury was a blessing, maybe it was because I did a lot of hard work to get back."

We spent the brunt of the nearly hour talking about his career, which culminated in his being inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983. And all the while, Killer was being quiet-spoken. Then I asked him something that I was not sure he was ready to answer.

"Do people realize you are fifth on the all-time home runs list?"

Killebrew signed an autograph, greeted another person, shook that man's hand, then signed the autograph, then he answered the question.

"A lot of people would think it's Mickey Mantle," he told me. "I think people are quite surprised that I'm next on the list."

If you opened a baseball almanac back in 1987, it was Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714), Willie Mays (660), Frank Robinson (583) and Killebrew, who hit 573 home runs when his career concluded in 1975. When we did the interview, he was the American League's all-time, right-handed hitting home run leader, an honor he held until 2009 when a guy named Alex Rodriguez passed him up.

As a matter of fact, since we did our interview 24 years ago, he's been passed up on the home run list by Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr., A-Rod, Jim Thome and Mark McGwire. Still, being No. 11 on the list is not a bad thing whatsoever, considering his first three years were spent being a mere spectator.

His love for the Twins, though, as I found out, never died. In that '87 season, the Twins were on their way to what would be the franchise's first World Series title. That year, the Twins won the AL West title with an 85-77 record, and four AL East teams -- the Detroit Tigers (98-64), Toronto Blue Jays (96-66), Milwaukee Brewers (91-71) and New York Yankees (89-73) -- all had better records than the Twins that season.

When I brought up the lopsidedness of the AL East's records over the AL West in the middle of that season, Killebrew in true, laid-back fashion, gave it a short thought, then answered.

"I think there's more competition in the American League West than in any other division," he said. "I think pitching is going to be a key down the stretch like it always is for the Twins to win the division."

He was right and Frank Viola would be the World Series MVP in leading the Twins past the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.

The interview wrapped up at about the time the autograph session was finishing up. It was a worthy hour in which at the end, I told him I appreciated the time and thanked him. Killebrew offered his hand out to shake it and said, "It was a pleasure here as well."

And I left Asbury Park with a good feeling. The next day I went back to Asbury Park for another great interview with former New York Mets lefthanded ace, 1969 World Series hero and another all-around good guy, Jerry Koosman.

The time I spent in Asbury Park doing those card shows were very much an education on not just being around legendary players, but legendary people as well. Sadly in 2011, both Snider and Killebrew passed away.

But I won't ever forget what Ed Walsh did for me to get me those interviews, even if they were in situations where the former stars were trying to converse with their fans, sign autographs, take pictures and have to deal with me, of all people, asking them questions about their careers.

Thank you Ed. And thank you Killer -- wherever you are up there -- for an amazing hour in which you were down to Earth and just enjoyable to be around.

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