Rod home opener

Photo courtesy of Minnesota Twins

MINNEAPOLIS – Standing on dugout steps, waiting to throw out the honorary first pitch for the Minnesota Twins’ home opener, Hall of Famer Rod Carew stared at the video board atop left field as a tribute played in memory of people who died since last baseball season.

“Honey,” he said to his wife, Rhonda, “I was almost on that board.”

On Sept. 20, the longtime Minnesota Twins star’s heart betrayed him. Carew suffered a heart attack that day and the first of two cardiac arrests. He later was diagnosed with severe heart failure, which led to a device called an LVAD being implanted to handle the pumping that’s supposed to be done by the left side of his heart.

Yet here he was on Monday afternoon, a week removed from a six-month checkup in which he received a clean bill of health and words of encouragement about getting on the transplant waiting list in a few months. So as he took a few steps toward the diamond, the emotions of what might’ve been and what might yet be swirled through him, pushing tears into his eyes.

“You can’t do that,” he told himself, forcing out a smile to keep the tears from falling.

He kept up the charade when his close friend and former teammate Tony Oliva brought him the baseball. Carew fired a strike to Twins star Joe Mauer, prompting more smiles, these fueled by joy and relief.

“I didn’t bounce it,” he said, laughing.

By taking center stage in front of 40,000-plus fans, Carew not only celebrated his progress, he also continued raising the profile of Heart of 29, his campaign with the American Heart Association to help boost awareness and prevention of heart disease. The Twins will continue their efforts Wednesday when they debut red jerseys with a Heart of 29 sleeve patch, something they will wear every Friday home game this season.

Carew reached out to the American Heart Association last fall after becoming among the 85.6 million Americans living with some form of cardiovascular disease or the after-effects of stroke. The campaign is named for the jersey number he wore throughout his big-league career, including his first dozen seasons in Minnesota; he won seven American League batting titles and made 18 All-Star teams over his 19-year career. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991.

Carew publicized his heart ordeal shortly before Thanksgiving and made his first major public appearance at Target Field in late January for the launch of Heart of 29. Encouraged by how that weekend event went, he met his goal of resuming his usual coaching duties at Twins spring training in Florida. He spent three weeks there working with hitters, only slightly limited by his health.

The 70-year-old Carew is so comfortable with his equipment that he recently played 15 holes of golf. As he loosened up to throw the first pitch, the jacket he wore to battle the brisk weather was far more limiting than the vest he wears to hold his LVAD controller and two batteries. Still, he’d like a new heart to lead closer to a normal life.

As he waits for progress on the possible transplant, he’ll spend the rest of the spring and early summer spreading the message about fighting heart disease, the No. 1 killer of Americans.

The Los Angeles Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers are planning Heart of 29 events, as is the Hall of Fame. Carew is eager for more teams to join the campaign. Carew also will be returning to Minneapolis for the Twin Cities Heart Walk, which will begin and end in front of a statue of him outside Target Field on May 14.