Harmon Killebrew says he has cancer

Former Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins star Harmon Killebrew has esophageal cancer and is being treated at the Mayo Clinic near his home in Arizona, he said in a statement released Thursday.

Killebrew, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984 after a career that included 11 All-Star Game selections and the 1969 Most Valuable Player award, said he was recently diagnosed with the disease.

Killebrew, 74, currently ranks 11th on the all-time major league home run list with 573.

Killebrew spent 21 seasons with the Senators and Twins, in addition to one final season with the Kansas City Royals.

"With my wife, Nita, by my side, I have begun preparing for what is perhaps the most difficult battle of my life," Killebrew said in the statement. "I am being treated by a team of medical professionals at the Mayo Clinic. While my condition is very serious, I have confidence in my doctors and the medical staff, and I anticipate a full recovery.

According to the Mayo Clinic website, esophageal cancer is relatively uncommon in the United States, though it is more prevalent in other parts of the world. The esophagus carries food from the throat to the stomach so that it can be digested. Killebrew said he is optimistic about his chances for recovery.

Killebrew 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 hit 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 now makes his home in Phoenix area, but has maintained a regular presence with the Twins for years.

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.

He is one of the biggest draws at the team's annual Twins Fest, a fan festival 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.

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

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.