By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
COOPERSTOWN, New York – Riding in a parade to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Rod Carew felt beloved by the crowd as soon as his truck rolled onto the route.
“Much health, Rod!” said the first voice to rise above the clapping and whooping.
“I’m still here!” Carew replied, smiling wide.
“God bless you, Rod!” someone else bellowed.
“I need all the help I can get from him,” Carew said, chuckling.
Ten months earlier, Carew nearly died of heart disease – first a heart attack, then cardiac arrest, then extreme heart failure. Doctors saved his life by implanting a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, to keep blood flowing through his body. He’s recovered so well that he could soon join the waiting list for a heart transplant. He’s also regained much of the life he had before, such as making this annual trip to the Hall of Fame induction weekend and participating in events like this parade.
The black pickup truck carrying Carew and his family moved slowly. Yet the warm sentiments came rapidly: “Looking good, Rod!” … “Thanks for coming out!” … “You’re the best!”
Then the truck turned onto Main Street and Carew heard something that rung his emotional bell.
“Thanks for being alive.”
Carew didn’t just leak a few tears, as he’s done in public many times since his ordeal. He went into a shoulder-shaking, jaw-trembling bawl unlike any time in the last six months.
This weekend in Cooperstown was a capstone of sorts in Carew’s journey from setback to comeback. Simply being here made him three-for-three on the list of goals he set during his darkest days. Yet what really made it special for him was using the weekend to boost awareness and prevention of heart disease via Heart of 29, the campaign he’s started with the American Heart Association.
Health screenings were offered Saturday and Sunday at the hotel that hosted the Hall of Famers and their families; 41 people took advantage, including at least 10 of baseball’s all-time greats. There was even a line of people waiting at one point on Saturday – right after a stirring speech by Rhonda Carew during a wives’ luncheon. At that same time, her husband was spreading the word at a news conference then interacting with fans during an autograph session that had to be extended to accommodate everyone who wanted to meet him.
Everywhere they went, the Carews spent the weekend chatting up their life-saving mission. American Heart Association News tagged along, generating this portrait of a family thankful for the gift of life and eager to share it with others.
Several weeks ago, the other 47 Hall of Famers coming to Cooperstown received a letter personally signed by Rod and Rhonda.
It was an invitation, really, asking them to set aside a few minutes to get a snapshot of their heart health.
“Don’t end up a victim of heart disease,” the Carews wrote. “We plan on returning to Cooperstown for many years to come. Please get your heart checked so you can keep coming back, too.”
A team from Bassett Healthcare Network set up shop in the Abner Doubleday Room of the Otesaga Resort Hotel. Just 15 minutes after opening, in stepped the first customer, 1970 World Series MVP Brooks Robinson.
Robinson is 79 and has dealt with an irregular heartbeat for 17 years. He gets his blood checked frequently because of medication he’s taking and he recently lost 30 pounds. Even though he’s on top of things, he figured a little more knowledge could only help.
Robinson went back to the lobby for a cup of coffee and saw Gaylord Perry, one of only nine pitchers with 300 wins and 3,000 strikeouts. Robinson encouraged Perry to get checked, and Perry brought along his wife and a friend to get screened, too.
“It’s about time Rod did something for me after all those hits I gave him,” Perry joked. “He’s got me thinking about (my health). He’s got a lot of people here trying to take care of themselves.”
The test took only about 15 minutes, including paperwork at the start and a review at the end. The screening included a blood pressure check and a dab of blood to evaluate total cholesterol and HDL (“good”) cholesterol. By also factoring in age, gender and whether the patient smokes, doctors can estimate the chances of having a heart attack in the next 10 years.
“I just don’t want to have something bad happen so I came down here to find out if there was a risk,” said Rollie Fingers, the first reliever to save 300 games. “I had a physical about three months ago. I wanted to check the results of what that doctor came up with to what they said today, to see if it’s changed at all.”
On Saturday, the total number of people screened was 29, which is fitting because that’s the jersey number Carew wore throughout his career and thus the inspiration for the campaign’s name.
Another 12 people were screened on Sunday, including Tom Glavine, who at age 50 is among the youngest Hall of Famers. Still, Carew’s message resonated with him.
“When you hear Rod’s story and what happened, you absolutely understand, `That could be me.’ You realize how quickly things can change,” Glavine said. “After hearing that and seeing the opportunity that Rod and Rhonda placed before us, it was like, `You know what? We’re here. Let’s do it. Let’s take advantage of it. Let’s make sure there’s not something going on that we’re not aware of.’”
His wife, Chris, wasn’t as motivated to get checked – until hearing Rhonda’s speech on Saturday. Another wife shared that she’d reluctantly gotten screened that morning and was glad she did because she learned that she has high blood pressure.
“It’s heavy stuff during a celebratory weekend,” Chris Glavine said. “But it was good.”
Gayle Blyleven’s husband, Bert, played with Carew for many years, and they see each other often through the Minnesota Twins. She was so eager to get screened that she left the luncheon before dessert. Bert joined her.
When they came out, a line had formed. Gayle was thrilled to see that standing in it was a woman who had said she wasn’t the least bit interested in getting checked before she heard Rhonda’s speech.
Under a giant Hall of Fame banner, Carew sat on a barstool atop a stage at the Clark Sports Complex once again sharing his story for a crowd of reporters.
Two cardiologists joined him for the news conference: Dr. Gerald Marx, the AHA’s Physician of the Year in 2013, and a key figure in the creation of Heart of 29; and Dr. Patrick McNulty, Chief of Cardiology for Bassett Healthcare Network and a member of the AHA’s local board of directors.
The physicians helped drive the message that heart disease is preventable, especially by following Life’s Simple 7, another nice numerical tie-in since Carew won seven batting titles.
“I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through,” Carew said. “I want people to know and understand there’s nothing wrong with going to a doctor and getting your heart checked.”
Next up was a trip to the Tunnicliff Inn, a hotel converted into an autograph show for the weekend. There were almost as many Hall of Famers here as the resort. As Carew waited for his table to be ready, he proved to be as much of a magnet to his peers as he would become to the ticket-buying fans.
“I knew you had a heart attack, but I didn’t know how bad it was,” Robin Yount said. “Now you’re up and running around, stealing bases!”
Wade Boggs was in a hurry, but paused to peck Carew on the cheek. Craig Biggio had started signing autographs nearby, but when he saw Carew, Biggio got up and walked over to greet him.
“I appreciate you doing (the screenings),” Biggio said. “It’s really nice.”
For nearly two hours, Carew signed balls, bats, jerseys, pictures, drawings, magazines and more. Many fans congratulated him on recently having the American League batting title named in his honor and many referenced his health. Several shared their heart stories.
“Mr. Carew, I had a heart issue two years ago,” one man said. “You can beat this.”
“Three days after you had yours, I had mine,” another fan said. “Then in March I had another and had some stents put in.”
Carew lifted his shirt to show his own LVAD controller and batteries. “I hope I don’t have to get one of them,” said the fan.
Because the autograph signing ran late, Carew was pretty worn out. Any 70-year-old might be, especially one with a machine keeping him alive.
But there was another ceremony to attend, then the parade and a reception. So Carew changed into his suit and went to Doubleday Field. Dr. Marx examined him, and made sure Carew ate and drank, fueling him for the parade.
After the emotional crescendo – which Carew later called his most memorable moment of the weekend – some laughs followed. Someone screamed, “In Rod we trust,” and, at the end, a group of fans rhythmically chanted: “Rod! Ca! Rew! Rod! Ca! Rew!” It made a nice backdrop as he went from the truck to walking on a red carpet up the steps to the Hall of Fame.
The museum was open to only the Hall of Famers, their families and guests. The entire building was available for touring, but the place to be was the plaque gallery, the room where each legend is immortalized.
Johnny Bench and Mike Schmidt sat at a table in the section featuring their plaques. Since that’s also where Carew’s hangs, he went one table over, sitting under the late Willie Stargell. (Stargell had heart failure before dying of a stroke in 2001.)
Tony Perez soon came by to say hello. Only, he wasn’t really there to see Rod.
“Where’s Rhonda?” he said. “They told me her speech was tremendous. I want to congratulate her.”
The Carews were joined by their friends Jay and Kari Ellingson from La Crosse, Wisconsin. Jay went from rabid fan to good buddy many years ago. The Ellingsons joined the Carews on their 10th anniversary trip to Hawaii, when they renewed their vows, and Rod is the godfather to the Ellingsons’ oldest son, Ryan.
Jay Ellingson was prescribed statins long before Carew’s heart attack. The pills caused some side effects so he stopped taking them. Even after doctors said he could cut back to a half-dose, Ellingson still struggled to make it a habit. But ever since Carew texted him from the hospital saying he’d had a heart attack, Ellingson hasn’t missed a single day.
“He’s changed my life,” Ellingson said. “He does so much good for so many people.”
The main event of Hall of Fame weekend is the induction ceremony, and this year’s drew a monster crowd. An estimated 50,000 people packed the field behind the Clark Sports Complex to see Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey Jr. join baseball’s most exclusive fraternity.
Fans started arriving early for the 1:30 p.m. start. Many passed the time by visiting an AHA tent.
In addition to learning more about Heart of 29 and heart disease, they also had the opportunity to learn Hands-Only CPR; 104 took advantage. While most visitors already were familiar with Carew’s story, some were hearing about it for the first time. Many also enjoyed sharing their own heart and stroke stories.
Early in the induction ceremony, a video played in memory of Yogi Berra and Monte Irvin, Hall of Famers who died in the last year. A moment of silence followed, and Carew wiped a tear from his left eye. As has become typical during such tributes, he can’t help but think, “I could’ve been on that list, too.”
During MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s speech, he said his personal highlight of the All-Star Game was naming the AL batting title for Carew, and the NL award for the late Tony Gwynn. When Piazza spoke, he also congratulated Carew on the honor.
At the resort afterward, Carew was in great spirits. Although it was hours before his favorite event of the weekend – a dinner attended strictly by Hall of Famers – he declared the trip a huge success.
After all, his message was delivered. People were screened. Those who weren’t at least heard how important it is. Most of all, he got friends and strangers thinking and talking about heart health, which is exactly what he wanted.
His campaign is going on hold now. Later this week, he has an initial evaluation with the transplant team at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Best-case scenario, he goes on the list in early August and gets a new heart soon after. Maybe even before Sept. 20, the first anniversary of his heart attack.
Regardless of how things play out, Carew plans to return to Cooperstown next year. His fans will be waiting.