Rod on stage

MINNEAPOLIS – As soon as Baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew began recovering from life-threatening heart problems, he became driven by one thought: How can I help?

Carew knew his story could inspire more people to take control of their heart health and encourage more donations toward research to beat, treat and prevent cardiovascular disease. His first step was reaching out to the American Heart Association and the next big step came Saturday with the launch of the “Heart of 29” campaign.

This yearlong effort will increase awareness about heart disease and raise funds for the AHA. The Minnesota Twins were first to join the effort, offering donations, promotions and on-field tributes this upcoming season, as well as hosting the kickoff event at their annual TwinFest event for fans. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Baseball Hall of Fame also are planning to be involved.

“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” Carew said. “Hopefully this campaign along with the American Heart Association will really turn out to be something big and help a lot of people. That’s all I care about and that’s all that’s important to me.”

Carew was playing golf on Sept. 20 when he suffered a massive heart attack, then went into cardiac arrest. A battle with heart failure followed, deteriorating to the point where he needed a new heart – but his body was too sick to handle a transplant. So doctors implanted a battery-operated device called an LVAD, or left ventricular assist device. While the 70-year-old Carew could remain on the machine for years, he plans to look into a transplant in a few months.

“I told them I want a 21-year-old’s heart just to see if I can go out there and start hitting some baseballs,” he said, laughing.

Carew’s ordeal was publicized shortly before Thanksgiving; this marked his first public appearance since then.

Speaking from a stage inside the Twins’ stadium, Target Field, at the annual TwinFest event, Carew started by saying he expected to become emotional. He then described all the medical equipment he’s forced to carry, calling himself “the bionic man.”

“If this is the only way that I can help, by (sharing) the things that I’ve gone through and crying like a baby in front of I don’t know how many people, then it’s worth it,” Carew said. “From here on in, I hope that I will be reading stories about people getting their hearts checked and doing OK.”

He’s doing pretty well himself. He’s already played nine holes of golf and continues building his stamina.

He set three goals for himself during recovery: To get home, to attend TwinsFest and to go to Florida later this month to coach young players in spring training. Having accomplished the first two, he’s eager to go 3-for-3.

He credited his wife, Rhonda, for helping him get this far, jokingly calling her his “drill instructor.” For instance, when a wheelchair was offered at the ballpark on Saturday, she insisted that he walk.

“She’s trying to get me in shape for spring training,” he said.

Added Rhonda: “He doesn’t realize how fantastic he’s doing. … I see him stronger every day — as long as he walks.”

Since news broke about Carew’s condition, he’s already started making a difference.

Many of his friends and former teammates have been inspired to get checkups and/or make lifestyle changes. This includes former big-league pitcher Clyde Wright, who learned he had clogged arteries and underwent successful quadruple bypass surgery.

“That’s one life I saved,” Carew said.

Now Carew wants Heart of 29 to inspire heart-healthy actions among baseball fans.

It is only fitting that the Twins are jumping right in.

Carew played the majority of his career in Minnesota and wears a Twins hat on his Hall of Fame plaque; the club also has retired his jersey – No. 29, of course. A statue of him stands outside Target Field.

carew3The Twins are encouraging fans to join or donate to Rod’s Team in the Twins Cities Heart Walk, which will take place on May 14 at Target Field. The team will match up to $10,000 in donations to Rod’s Team. Carew and his wife, Rhonda, are planning to attend.

The team’s support of Carew’s campaign will be especially visible during Friday home games as players will wear red jerseys. This will begin April 13, and that night’s jerseys also will feature a Heart of 29 sleeve patch.

The team is offering a “Carew’s Corner” ticket package for Friday games in April and May. In addition to lower-level seats, buyers will receive a special Heart of 29 Rod Carew red Twins jersey, with a portion of each purchase going to the American Heart Association.

“The Twins are honored to partner with the American Heart Association and the Carew family to raise funds and awareness for heart health throughout 2016,” Twins president Dave St. Peter said. “The Twins are committed to the Carews’ mission to share Rod’s story and use it to make people aware of the risks of heart disease and how to prevent it with healthy lifestyle choices.”

Carew remains beloved in the Twin Cities, which should help his message resonate, said Dan Spiller, a senior vice president at US Bank and the local AHA board chairman. Spiller attended Saturday’s event with his son, Abbott, who was born with a heart problem.

“Anytime someone has a personal experience with a heart problem, whether it be a child like we had or an adult like Rod, I think it gives us an opportunity to take that story and make it relevant to a much bigger community,” Spiller said. “We can ensure that, No. 1, people get a message of what good health requires; No. 2, we have the funds to ensure that message gets out; and No. 3, people really understand the miracles that happen each day in every single community.”

Carew spent 19 years in the majors playing for the Twins and California Angels, collecting awards such as Rookie of the Year and MVP, and making an astounding 18 straight All-Star appearances.

A solid defender and a terrific baserunner, Carew’s greatest skill was his left-handed swing. He won seven batting titles on his way to a career average of .328 and 3,053 hits, both among the highest in big-league history. He was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame the first time he appeared on the ballot.

Carew has remained connected to the game as a coach and ambassador. He’s looking forward to attending Twins spring training in Fort Myers, Florida, and he’s planning to be in Cooperstown, New York, in July to welcome the new crop of Hall of Famers and to commemorate the 25th anniversary of him joining that exclusive fraternity.

At TwinsFest, the AHA set up a booth offering information about heart disease and accepting donations for Heart of 29. Fans also could take a picture inside a frame attached to a picture of Carew. Among those taking part — Rod and Rhonda Carew.

Rod-Rhonda selfie