MINNEAPOLIS – When you’ve received a new heart and a new chance at life – and come away with an expanded platform for your message about saving more lives – every day is special.
Baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew is fresh off one of his very best days since his heart transplant because of where he spent it: at the home of his beloved Minnesota Twins.
The organization and its fans showed their love for Carew with a series of meaningful moments. As great as Monday’s ceremonies were, the purest joy came from the small interactions – hugging longtime staffers, hanging out with players and coaches, talking shop around the batting cage, even signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans.
It was just so … normal, like a day at the ballpark used to be, the kind of thing Carew once took for granted but now savors after coming so close, so many times, to never experiencing any of it again.
“That’s why I was looking forward to coming here,” he said. “I’m back in my element.”
Heart disease invaded Carew’s life in September 2015.
Seemingly healthy, he suffered a “widow maker” heart attack and cardiac arrest the same day. Weeks later, extreme heart failure left his heart unable to efficiently pump blood to the rest of his body. So doctors implanted a machine – a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD – to do it for him.
While recovering, he launched Heart of 29, a campaign with the American Heart Association to increase awareness and prevention of heart disease. He spent early 2016 urging people to get their hearts checked. Then complications left him in need of a new heart and kidney.
He received the transplant in December, followed by shocking news: His organs came from Konrad Reuland, an NFL player who died of a brain aneurysm; it’s believed to be the first heart shared by pro athletes. Even more incredible, the two had met before, as Reuland went to middle school with Carew’s children. Reuland also died at age 29, adding poignancy to the name of Carew’s campaign.
The Carews and Reulands shared their story in April, and Carew’s renewed health was evident then.
He’s continued to improve, frequently urging therapists at cardiac rehabilitation to increase the weights in his workouts.
A few weeks ago, Carew passed his six-month checkup. The milestone included clearance to travel.
There was no doubt where he’d go first.
Twins president Dave St. Peter began talking about hosting a victory lap at Target Field since Carew began recovering from the transplant. There’s plenty to celebrate in addition to Carew’s health. This is the 40th anniversary of his most spectacular season – when he nearly reached the hallowed .400 batting average and was named most valuable player of the American League. It’s also the 50th anniversary of Carew being named the AL Rookie of the Year.
Carew arrived at the ballpark about five hours before the game, which not-so-coincidentally was against the Angels, the other team he played for in his 19-year career. (Both have retired his jersey, No. 29, the inspiration for the campaign name.) St. Peter was among the first to greet him.
“Welcome home,” St. Peter said.
Carew’s first stop was the news conference room, where dozens of people waited.
They weren’t reporters, though. They were team employees – some who knew him well, some who felt as if they did. As a group, staffers have been so supportive that St. Peter wanted them to be the first to hear from Carew.
“This is family,” St. Peter said.
Carew thanked them “for always being there for me,” and discussed everything he’s been through since last visiting Target Field almost exactly a year before.
“I wasn’t afraid of dying – I just wanted to keep living because I think I have a lot of work to do to save lives,” he said. “I believe that’s why I’m still here. … I just don’t want anyone to go through what I went through.”
He praised his wife, Rhonda, so much that afterward someone asked for her autograph. It was the first time she’d ever signed a ball. She also shared the fact that in Carew’s final days on the LVAD, doctors told her the other side of his heart had begun deteriorating, but she hid it from him at the time.
“I didn’t want him to be more anxious,” she said.
After the speech, Carew’s close friend Tony Oliva – a fellow Twins great who would catch the ceremonial opening pitch – delivered a gift: the bat Carew used in the 1968 All-Star Game. The relic was signed by many players from that game and was now mounted. It found its way to Oliva from a fan who wanted to get it to Carew.
Carew admired the bat. What he really wanted was a ball.
Carew hadn’t tossed a baseball in a year, since committing the cardinal sin of ceremonial first pitches: failing to reach home plate in the air. It happened at Boston’s Fenway Park and he remembered it all too well.
So as soon as he greeted manager Paul Molitor, Carew asked for a ball. Molitor plucked one from a box and handed it to him. Carew treasured it like a kid in the stands would; it remained in his hand for hours.
“I forgot how heavy it is,” Carew said.
“If someone threw it at you, you’d know what to do,” Molitor said, laughing.
“He just better throw it high,” Oliva said.
The laughter and baseball talk continued for hours. So did the appreciation for Carew – from first-year chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and first-year general manager Thad Levine to enthusiastic hugs from players he’s mentored, such as newly minted All-Stars Miguel Sano and Ervin Santana.
Carew seemed most comfortable around the batting cage. He talked to hitting coach James Rowson about refining the swing of Chris Gimenez as he hit off a tee. He then sat on a sofa joking about bat sizes with Kennys Vargas.
“Get that wing loose,” second baseman Brian Dozier had told Carew during a visit to the dugout. “You better not one-hop it.”
Oliva borrowed a glove from Kyle Gibson, the next day’s starting pitcher. Gibson came to the cage to see this for himself: the 71-year-old Carew and 78-year-old Oliva playing catch.
“That’s awesome – incredible, incredible,” said Gibson, who wore the biggest smile in a room full of smiling people. “I’ve got to decide if I’m ever going to use this glove again.”
At the news conference, Carew recalled June 26, 1977, the most memorable day of his career.
It was Rod Carew jersey T-shirt day at the old Metropolitan Stadium, drawing a sellout crowd. He got hits in four of five at-bats. The second hit, a double, prompted the scoreboard message, “That is .400 for Rod!” and a standing ovation that Carew acknowledged by waving his batting helmet. Each subsequent hit also drew a standing ovation. He finished the day at .403 and peaked at .411 before finishing the season at .388. The run was so dramatic that he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and Time; a poster of the Time cover was given out to the first 10,000 fans Monday.
The pregame ceremony began with Rod and Rhonda going toward the mound. Wearing a jersey and helmet from the 1977 season, Rod then headed to second base to recreate the ovation and helmet wave. The scoreboard again read, “That is .400 for Rod!” then offered a split screen image of his 1977 reaction and the current one.
Close-up images caught Carew wiping tears. Although he’s cried in public often throughout his medical ordeal, he wanted to hold back on this happy occasion.
“I kept telling myself, `You’re going to be OK, you can handle this,’ but the longer I stood out there, I knew I was going to crack,” he said. “I was hoping somebody would tell me to come back in.”
Back in front of the mound, it was time to throw to Oliva.
Let’s just say Carew’s old roomie bailed him out with a nice, scooping grab. When team curator Clyde Doepner collected the ball for the archives, it showed only a few specks of orange dirt.
“You two still make quite the team,” Rhonda said, smiling.
And the Twins orchestrated quite a ceremony.
“I don’t think I’ve ever gotten more goosebumps at a baseball game,” Doepner said, his voice choked with emotion. “That was really special. We love you, Rod. The prayers worked.”
The Twins took the field wearing Heart of 29 patches over their hearts, repeating a gesture they began last season. They’ll do it again in August for a game that will also honor the Reulands.
It’s all part of a busy summer for Carew as he continues his lifesaving work and resumes the tasks befitting a baseball legend. Next week he’ll be honored at the All-Star game and at the end of the month he’ll make his annual trek to Cooperstown, New York, for Hall of Fame induction weekend.
He’ll also be featured on HBO’s Real Sports on July 18.
And the very next thing on his to-do list?
He’s getting back in the batter’s box – playing softball this Sunday with the folks from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the hospital where he received his new organs.
“It’s doctors vs. patients,” Carew said. “I’ve already asked for a pinch-runner.”