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Originally published Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 7:55 AM

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Harmon Killebrew says he has esophageal cancer

Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew has been diagnosed with esophageal cancer.

AP Baseball Writer

MINNEAPOLIS —

Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew has been diagnosed with esophageal cancer.

The 74-year-old Killebrew released a statement through the Minnesota Twins on Thursday, saying he expects to make a full recovery from the "very serious" condition.

"With my wife, Nita, by my side, I have begun preparing for what is perhaps the most difficult battle of my life," Killebrew said.

Killebrew hit 573 home runs and made 11 All-Star appearances during his 22-year career spent mostly with the Washington Senators and Twins. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984 and was fifth on the career home run list when he retired in 1975 after one season with the Kansas City Royals.

Killebrew currently ranks 11th on the all-time homer list, and his eight seasons with 40 or more homers still is tied for second in league history to Babe Ruth.

Killebrew has maintained a regular presence with the Twins for years. He lives in the Phoenix area and said he is receiving treatment at a branch of the Mayo Clinic nearby. He was optimistic about his chances for recovery.

"The Mayo Clinic is one of the largest and most experienced medical centers treating esophageal cancer in the world. In the past decade, they have made tremendous advances in the treatment of this disease," Killebrew said. "Nita and I feel blessed to have access to the best doctors and medical care."

The congenial power hitter is one of the most beloved players in Twins history, as much for his gentle and approachable nature off the field as for the towering home runs he smacked at Metropolitan Stadium during his playing days.

"I tell everybody he's too nice to be a baseball player," former teammate Tony Oliva said Thursday. "He's a gentleman."

Twins designated hitter Jim Thome passed Killebrew on the career home run list in August, belting two at brand new Target Field. After the feat, Killebrew issued a gracious congratulatory message to Thome.

"I speak very highly of Jim Thome," Killebrew said in September. "Not only is he a great player, but he's a great individual. I think he was a little apprehensive about passing me up. I said, 'Jim, I passed a lot of guys up myself along the way. I hope you hit 100 more.'"

Killebrew's No. 3 jersey is retired, and he made several appearances at the Twins' new outdoor ballpark last season, including during their playoff series against the Yankees.

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He is one of the biggest draws at the team's annual TwinsFest, a fan event in January that serves as a buildup to spring training.

"I thank everyone for their outpouring of prayers, compassion and concern," he said. "Nita and I ask for privacy during this difficult journey."

Oliva said he was "shocked" when he found out about the diagnosis.

"You heard the word 'cancer' and it's a very tough word, but right now everything's so advanced that he's probably going to be all right," Oliva said in a phone interview. "The doctors do a great, great job."

Oliva saw Killebrew in September for the team's 50th season celebration that honored the franchise's best.

"He was looking fine, in beautiful shape," Oliva said. "He looked like he was in better shape than when he played."

Added Oliva: "Everybody's pulling for him. Our prayers are going to be with him and his family."

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