‘We lost Paul Bunyan’

MINNEAPOLIS – Harmon Killebrew earned every bit of his frightening nickname, hitting tape-measure home runs that awed even his fellow Hall of Famers.

Yet there was a softer side to “The Killer,” too.

The balding gentleman who enjoyed a milkshake after each game. The fisherman who was afraid of bumping into alligators. The MVP who always had time to help a rookie.

Killebrew, the big-swinging slugger for the Minnesota Twins and the face of the franchise for so many years, died Tuesday at age 74 after battling esophageal cancer.

“It’s a sad day. We lost an icon. We lost Paul Bunyan,” former Twins star Kent Hrbek said.

The team said Killebrew died peacefully at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his wife, Nita, and their family at his side. He announced his diagnosis six months ago, and last week Killebrew said he was settling in for the final days of his life with hospice care after doctors deemed the “awful disease” incurable.

At Target Field, the scoreboard showed a picture of a smiling Killebrew and his retired No. 3 was etched in the dirt behind second base. Plus, there was a more personal tribute – the Twins’ ground crew slowly lifted home plate and put under it a plastic-encased, black-and-white photo of Killebrew.

The picture, believed to be from the 1960s, will stay beneath the plate the rest of the season. It shows, naturally, the compact Killebrew poised to go deep.

And boy, could he take a big cut.

His 573 home runs still rank 11th on the all-time list. His uppercut swing formed the silhouette that inspired Major League Baseball’s official logo.

“You shake his hand, still at 70-some years old, and he’d crush your hand. You can see where he got that power,” Twins slugger Justin Morneau said.

Along with a statue in Killebrew’s likeness outside Target Field, there’s a giant bronze glove where fans pose for snapshots – the glove is 520 feet from home plate, fittingly the distance of his longest home run.

He wasn’t always the tough guy. Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel became friends with Killebrew and Bob Allison during his first spring training with the Twins and often fished together in a Florida lake.

“There were some alligators in there, otters and things like that in there that would bump up against your leg,” Manuel said. “They would get scared. So I would take the fish chain and hook it to the boat, and I’d wade and pull the boat. That was part of being a rookie.”

Whether as an 18-year-old with the Washington Senators in 1954 or playing for Kansas City in his final season in 1975, Killebrew carried himself the same unassuming way.

Former teammate Tony Oliva traveled to Arizona over the weekend to see Killebrew one last time. Paul Molitor, yet another Twin Cities native who became a big league star, also visited.

“I’m glad that God brought him home after the suffering he’s been through the last few months,” Molitor said, his eyes watering. He added: “I was very appreciative of the man he was and how I was able to learn from him. I picked the guy that you would want to pick to be your idol.”