The opening of another baseball season is always a magnificent time of hope and renewal. Anything is possible regardless where your favorite team finished the previous season in early October.
After all, until that first game is in the record books, all teams are World Series hopefuls and tied for first at 0-0.
And as April, oh so grudgingly this year, hopefully gives way to some seasonally warmer temperatures in May, and then as each month of summer cycles through, fans of really good teams eye October baseball. Meanwhile, others long for an elusive historic winning streak or raise the white flag of surrender while voicing the “wait until next year” mantra.
Ah yes, baseball season, when a fan’s faith is tested yet always survives, even if the team loses more than it wins. Hey, baseball fans may rant and rave and boo their teams, but they know it’s a marriage that is forever, even during the worst of times. The words of frustration and anger are momentary; the love of kin is unconditional.
The Minnesota Twins, like all teams, has a checkered past — plenty of downs mixed with several ups, including the glorious 1987 and 1991 World Championship years.
I have been fortunate to soak in several Twins’ home Opening Days at the team’s different residences of the old Met Stadium in Bloomington and the Metrodome and new Target Field in downtown Minneapolis.
That’s a lot of special games featuring many of baseball’s best. Of those players, Rod Carew, one of the most graceful and elegant major leaguers to ever display his skills between the white lines, has always been in the rarified air of greatness that I have been so fortunate to witness.
But I had no way of even remotely knowing in 1969, as Carew stole home a remarkable seven times that year alone, that my path in life and that of the future Hall of Famer would cross in such a miraculous way nearly 50 years later.
On Sept. 20, 2015, Carew was playing a round of golf in California when his life changed forever. He was stricken with a “widow maker” heart attack.
Two months later he would receive a Left Ventricle Assist Device (LVAD) — basically an artificial heart pump to serve as a bridge to a possible heart transplant. His life was now reliant on an amazing piece of equipment that had been inserted into his chest and circulated life’s blood throughout his body.
It was a perilous and extremely difficult time for one of the wondrous Boys of Summer. I hurt for the man who had provided Twins’ fans with so many neat memories. But sports heroes are also vulnerable to life’s troubles as well as its triumphs. Aren’t we all?
I closely followed Carew’s new life with an LVAD. And I wondered to myself how would I even be able to handle such adversity.
Then, less than a year later in August 2016, I wondered no more. I was taken down by a similar “widow maker” attack. Death came calling often for days and weeks but decided to be only a visitor this time and eventually took leave. And I, too, had an LVAD implanted.
I would lean on Rod Carew’s experiences and his words of coping with such a blindsided jolt as I awakened each day to a routine of unplugging from a wall outlet that was a tethered lifeline at night to hooking up to a battery pack during the day.
Carew would get the call in December 2016 that a donor’s heart had become available. I wondered at the time how bittersweet that moment must have been. A second chance at a normal life; but only because a donor had died.
A couple months later in early April 2017 I, again, would wonder no more. The call came on April 5; the heart of a 26-year-old man named Ryan was beating within me the next day.
The feelings of gratitude for Ryan’s selfless act remain overwhelming; and the pangs of guilt also resurface at times. Yes, still bittersweet.
I read in one story after his transplant that Carew said the rehabilitation was the hardest thing he’d ever done. Carew’s words would soon be prophetic for me.
Putting one foot in front of the other without stumbling or falling became a big deal. Being able to rise from a couch or chair without aid was a success story I once thought might never be written. Moving from wheelchair to cane to baby steps and finally to full strides and running in place each became goals met through mental, physical and spiritual efforts.
Rodney, I get it. Yes, rehabbing after the heart transplant is definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
And it’s not complete. It’s a work in progress. But oh how the goals have changed. They are now this summer 18 holes of golf with friends; bicycling in Colorado and playing some basketball with granddaughters.
My new heart overflows with thankfulness for what so many people have done for me since the heart attack now nearly 20 months ago. I can’t even begin to find the words of gratitude for family, loved ones, my donor and his family, and so, so many friends on this unbelievable journey.
One of those, even though he doesn’t realize it, is Rod Carew.
And Rodney, I can still close my eyes and visualize a summer’s day in 1969 at the Old Met as you started a slow walk down the third base line before breaking into a sprint to slide safely into home.
You were a joy to watch back then while in your playing prime. And you’ve been such a comfortable inspiration for me now as you prove once again just how great a champion you are in the game of life.