Early in his career, Rod Carew visited a Minnesota hospital at the insistence of Twins owner Calvin Griffith; a nine-year-old boy wanted to meet his hero. “He’d been burned severely,” Rod Carew says. “And when I got there they were scrubbing him. He was screaming, and when he saw me he said, ‘Don’t get mad at me, Mr. Carew, but it hurts. It hurts.’ The kid was scarred for the rest of his life and he was worried about me hearing him cry. Well, I just turned to the window and started crying.”
After that, he visited children in hospitals whenever he could. In 1977, he won the Roberto Clemente Award as baseball’s exemplar of community service. He has seven silver bats and the 1977 AL Most Valuable Player award, but the Clemente award is the one he shows visitors. “I’m supposed to be this big guy,” he says. “But I cry a lot.” When the Twins traded him to the Angels in 1978, he cried.
It is no wonder, then, that the handful of friends in baseball who know of his plight have comforted him in turn. Former players like Don Baylor, Johnny Bench, Doug DeCinces and Chili Davis have visited or called. So have Twins president Dave St. Peter and Angels president John Carpino. Rod Carew’s advisory contracts with both teams expired 10 days after his heart attack, and both teams renewed him for 2016. Jeff Idelson, president of the Baseball Hall of Fame, has been poised to notify Carew’s fraternity brothers in Cooperstown whenever the first-ballot Hall-of-Famer was ready to go public.
That moment is now. Carew is speaking publicly for the express purpose of inspiring others who may require LVAD surgery or heart transplantation, and to urge the rest of us to be more rigorous about heart health. “The first thing that went through my mind,” he says of his unlikely survival, “is I have to get this message out to people.”
And so he has had the profound decency to reveal himself at his most vulnerable. He will help the American Heart Association do the same kind of advocacy he practiced for those leukemia patients who needed bone-marrow transplants when Michelle died in 1996. Their story increased registrants to the National Bone Marrow Registry, saving untold lives.
Indeed, the night before his heart attack, Carew participated in a fund-raising walk for leukemia research at the ballpark where he was once an Angel and remains a kind of angel. “You are here for a reason,” Rhonda tells Rod, repeatedly. “The Lord wasn’t ready for you yet. He kept you here for a reason.” Whatever that reason is—whatever the meaning of his life—baseball is beginning to look like only a small part of it.
Even so, baseball is integral to his recovery, and Carew has set goals to attend spring training in March and the Hall of Fame induction weekend next July, as Rhonda frequently reminds him. “She’s like a drill instructor,” he says. The man who used to call the weather bureau before every road trip can finally sleep on planes now, freed from teammates throwing their pillows at him during turbulence, as they used to enjoy doing “just to rattle me.”
At the peak of his powers in the summer of 1977, a year in which he hit .388 for the Twins and made the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated in the same week, Carew received standing ovations nearly every at-bat, a memory that edifies him even now.
“I’ll never forget that love,” says Carew, whose friends hope he’ll throw out a ceremonial first pitch next spring, and be buoyed by a ballpark ovation yet again. For Rod Carew knows better than anybody: There are many ways to fill a human heart.