Upon seeing the lit-up scoreboard of Harmon Killebrew Field at Pearl Park for the first time — on the night of the field’s dedication ceremony, Aug. 23 — I embarked on a mission to take a photograph of it for posterity. I only had the family’s point-and-shoot, so after trying and failing to get the shot through the fence as two 18U Pearl teams played the field’s inaugural game, I ended up letting myself in the fence and jogging out to the leftfield warning track at the top of the sixth inning to pop off a few frames while the outfielders warmed up.
I would have asked the umpires or coaches if it was OK, but I couldn’t get their attention, and I couldn’t exactly explain in a rush why the hell I wanted to run on the field or how desperately I wanted the photo. The truth is, I would’ve liked to have asked somebody’s permission to cross those fresh white chalk lines and sully that immaculate green grass because I knew was trotting on hallowed ground, and I wasn’t alone.
“At the beginning of the night, every kid on that base line took off their hat in respect to Harmon, and they didn’t have to be told,” said my old friend Tony Pucci, one of the teams’ coaches. “And that was kind of Harmon’s deal. You do stuff the right way. You treat people with respect, and the game with respect. He was there.”
Just in case anyone couldn’t feel him, the good energy of the man who taught Jack Morris that “you don’t have to be angry, you don’t have to be mad; you can love and share love” was made omnipresent by the stencil of his No. 3 behind home plate.
“They’ve been working on that field for about a year to get it into shape, and the last thing they did was put that scoreboard up and build that little concession stand,” said Tony. “We’ve been walking around on it and getting a feel for it and just salivating, waiting to get out there and play.”
Baseball diamonds are impossibly romantic play things, and to get everyone in the mood, last week Pearl hosted an outdoor screening of “Field of Dreams,” the quintessential Midwestern yarn about baseball, fatherhood, and the great unknown based on W.P. Kinsella’s novel “Shoeless Joe.” But fiction and fantasy had nothing on the idyllic scene that played out Thursday night, when a small town atmosphere took hold in the heart of the city.
“I’ve helped Dave Lassegard coach since our boys were in kindergarten, and they’ve played there since they were 6 years old, so it was really appropriate for that bunch of boys to break in that field — because they’re park rats,” said Tony, whose sons John and Mike played in the game and whose father, father-in-law, and wife Rita were in the stands with about a hundred others, including Mayor (and former park board baseball coach) Rybak and former Twins and Killebrew teammates Tony Oliva and Frank Quilici, who spoke at the dedication. “They’ve been down at that park their whole lives, and all those people in the stands knew boys on both those teams. Nobody was rooting for one team or another, everybody was rooting for all those kids. It was a really happy, hopeful vibe.”
In his first at-bat at Killebrew Field, as the sun set into Diamond Lake and the buzz of the crickets and cicadas crested, John beat out a single to deep short.
“It was insane,” he said, about the field upgrade, which was funded with $225,000 from the Hennepin Youth Sports Program and $75,000 from the Park and Recreation Board. “Stepping up to the plate for the first time was probably the coolest part for me. I’ve stepped up to the plate there a million times, but that time was completely different. You can see the whole field from that vantage point, and when I looked out at the scoreboard I had to step out of the box initially and call time to just look around and take a second to get used to it.”
Killebrew died of esophageal cancer on May 17, 2011. Killebrew Field is the first baseball field to be named in honor of Harmon, an Idaho kid who wasn’t supposed to make much of a go as it as an athlete but who ended up in the Hall of Fame and schooling young ballplayers on the art of signing an autograph — crisp and clean and hyper-legibly in a show of respect to the fan and game and to “let them know who you are.”
His magnificent home run swing is memorialized in bronze at Target Field, and Killebrew Drive leads to the Mall of America, which commemorates Killebrew’s longest-ever measured home run at Met Stadium (520 feet) with a red stadium seat hung up on a wall next to some fake rocks by the Nickelodean Universe flume. Killebrew Field — home to the Washburn Millers next spring — gets it right and does justice to the memory of the great man and slugger, who lived in South Minneapolis during his time with the Twins.
“I was just really excited to see people from the Twins and people from local government kind of putting their money where there mouth is, especially when the economy is tight, and doing something for the kids, baseball, and Minneapolis,” said Tony. “We play a lot of tourneys in the suburbs and they have baseball palaces that are phenomenal. They have very competitive programs, and guys like Dave Lassegard and myself have always wanted to do whatever we can to make sure kids in the city are playing good competitive baseball. So to have this in our own backyard is very cool.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.