“Rod Carew: The Fight of His Life” airs on MLB Network at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday.
When Rod Carew was a poor boy growing up in Panama, he contracted rheumatic fever. He spent six months in a hospital 40 miles from home. This left him usually alone when his temperature soared, unleashing hallucinations and prompting caregivers to dunk him in ice.
When Carew was a blossoming baseball star, an opponent slid spikes-first into his left knee. An umpire rushed over, looked at the gruesome gash and vomited.
When his playing days were done and his legacy was cemented with enshrinement in baseball’s Hall of Fame, Carew’s youngest daughter was diagnosed with leukemia at age 17. She was buried at 18.
So Carew knows agony. He understands pain all too well.
And now he’s enduring more.
After 70 years, his heart no longer works properly. A machine called an LVAD keeps it pumping. He’s hoping to receive a transplant this summer. If not, the device in his chest – and all its wires, batteries and other accessories – will remain his constant companion.
As his latest medical ordeal plays out, the seven-time batting champion is doing what he’s always done when life throws him a curveball. He’s nailing it.
Realizing his celebrity status could help, Carew reached out to the American Heart Association to create a campaign aimed at boosting awareness and prevention of heart disease. The campaign – dubbed “Heart of 29,” playing off the jersey number he wore throughout his career – launched recently at TwinsFest, an annual celebration of the team he’s most associated with, the Minnesota Twins.
Carew lives in California, so attending the event required his first plane trip with his new equipment. American Heart Association News joined him at Target Field for an up-close look at his recovery, his passion for this campaign and the difference he’s already making. Here’s what we saw.
By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
As he squirmed again, still trying to get comfortable, Carew warned the crowd that he might not make it through his speech. Tears frequently pour from his eyes these days and he wanted everyone braced for a flood.
Yet it didn’t happen. Quite the opposite. The more he spoke, the more he relaxed. Happiness replaced sadness. Joy replaced fear.
Once he started smiling, he hardly stopped.
Carew was in a place he loves, surrounded by people who love him – family, friends, former teammates and fans. Even the guy who created the device that’s keeping Carew alive came to say hello.
The on-stage opening event was followed by a news conference in the nearby press box. Getting from there to the next appointment was a bit of a hike – up one floor and down a long hall. Carew refused a wheelchair. He wanted to keep walking.
The steps are always good for him. Being upright also meant a better view of the delighted faces of everyone he passed and made it easier to hear the cheers.
“Get well soon, Rod!”
“Great to have you back!”
“We’re praying for you!”
In a conference room dominated by an enormous wooden table, Carew settled into the head spot to meet waves of fans who’d donated toward Heart of 29. Coming through two at a time, a total of 40 people got an autograph, a picture with Carew and a few moments of conversation.
“We’re really excited you’re doing this,” one visitor said.
“It’s nice to be able to do it,” Carew said.
This was his final obligation of the first day, so once he finished he could’ve returned to the hotel to rest. Maybe even should have. But there were things he still wanted to do, like see the Harley-Davidson decorated in his honor and greet everyone at the Heart of 29 booth.
So off he went, roaming the stadium again, smiling and waving at people surprised and thrilled to see him strolling by. He often paused at pictures from his playing days, especially those showing him without a hat, displaying an afro in full bloom. “That’s when I had hair!” he said, laughing every time.
Toward the rear of his entourage, his wife, Rhonda, soaked it all in. While Rod likes teasing that she’s become his drill instructor, he’s quick to say she is the reason he is bouncing back. His appreciation showed during the launch event; the emotional crescendo – the one time tears flowed – came when she joined him on the stage.
How did she think he was doing? Did she share an outsider’s opinion that Carew appeared to be holding up great?
“I’m not surprised,” she said. “He’s around baseball. That always brings out his best.”
A half-hour later, Carew was preparing to leave when Troy and Jennifer Townsend of White Bear Lake, Minnesota, stopped him. They wanted him to know their 27-year-old daughter Tara has been on an LVAD for five years and is doing great. They discussed devices and it turns out he and Tara have the same model.
“I wish your daughter a lot of luck,” Carew said.
All weekend, people felt comfortable discussing such things with him. One longtime friend, a local celebrity, shared the closely guarded details of his saga. Another man hugged Carew and said, “Rod, I’m going to get checked – you’re going to be my savior.”
During Day 2 of the private meet-and-greet autograph sessions, Eric Black of Minneapolis came in with his dad, Jeff Black, a heart attack survivor. Eric told Carew he’s been an inspiration to Jeff and asked for some words of wisdom.
“Keep taking your medicine,” Carew said.
To the next group, Carew told 7-year-old Auden Anderson, “It’s your duty to make sure Dad gets his heart checked.” Her dad, Jesse Anderson, said his father died of a heart attack in 2012, “so we’re definitely on board” with Heart of 29.
Orthopedic surgeon Dan Marek said he spoke to several cardiology friends who’ve heard about Carew’s case and they’re all optimistic.
“Yep,” Carew said. “Medicine has come a long way.”
Carew never tired of the main reason he was here: telling his story. He did so about a dozen times over three days, constantly refining his delivery, adding bits of insight or funny lines.
His tale begins while playing golf on Sept. 20. He hit a drive right down the middle of the fairway then felt his chest burn and his hands turn clammy. Realizing it might be a heart attack, he went to the clubhouse for help. He laid down, propped up his feet and went into cardiac arrest. His heart stopped twice and paramedics revived him both times.
The heart attack was caused by a blocked left anterior descending artery. It’s known as the “widow maker” because people usually die when blockage of this artery causes a heart attack. Doctors used a mesh-like tube called a stent to open that artery and two more. Then Carew bloated with 30 pounds of fluid. This was severe heart failure; the muscle no longer pumped efficiently.
His body too devastated for a transplant, Carew got the next best thing, a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD.
There’s a tiny contraption in his chest wired to a controller around his waist. That machine is powered by two batteries holstered into a vest. Carew carries backup batteries and other tools in a black purse-like bag he’s dubbed “Honey,” the same term of affection he uses for Rhonda because he likes having both close by. (He explains all this in show-and-tell mode, holding up the various pieces of equipment.)
Walking is his best therapy. This is where Rhonda turns into a drill instructor. She’s gotten him up to about two miles a day. He’s even played nine holes of golf.
In his playing days, Carew moved with such grace and confidence that he stole home 17 times, including an astounding seven times in a single season. Now he moves slowly and deliberately, partly because of the bulk and weight of his LVAD gear. As much as he appreciates the device, he hopes it’s only temporary. In fact, the real reason Rhonda pushes him to walk is to get him fit enough to be accepted on a transplant waiting list.
Compelling as these details are, they’re the dry facts of his story. The intensity goes up when he delves into areas like regret and faith, a father’s love and a selfless desire.
Even now, Carew is surprised that this happened to him, a former elite professional athlete who remained trim and active.
“I thought I was healthy,” he said.
A physical in April seemingly confirmed it. The doctor’s only concern was high cholesterol. He prescribed a common cholesterol-lowering pill and said they’d re-evaluate in six months.
A few weeks later, Carew didn’t feel any different. Figuring the pills weren’t doing anything, he stopped taking them. His life-altering day came before that follow-up appointment.
Ditching the medication is Carew’s biggest regret, the single thing he hopes others learn from the most. This is the source of his core message: Don’t end up like me.
There’s no way of knowing whether the medicine would’ve prevented this. But Carew didn’t take the pills and this did happen, so that cause-and-effect possibility haunts him. (Note: While rheumatic fever can damage a heart, doctors told him they don’t believe that was much of a factor. He had no family history or other risk factors.)
As he spent 47 days in five hospitals, Carew didn’t want anyone to know what happened. He wasn’t ashamed; he just cherishes his privacy. Then he thought about his late daughter Michelle.
Actually, he thought about her a lot.
Carew’s most vivid memory of the day he nearly died was looking up at a paramedic holding the paddles used to shock people back to life. The paramedic screamed, “We’re losing him, damn it, we’re losing him!” and Carew saw an angelic glow around the man. Carew had never seen such a thing. But in that moment he recalled that Michelle, in her dying days, described seeing her guardian angel in a corner of the room, bathed in a light visible only to her. For nearly 20 years, he thought that apparition was triggered by her pain medication. Now he believes she did see a higher power and that in his moment of reckoning, he was visited, too.
Once his condition stabilized, he thought about another aspect of Michelle’s dying days, the way she insisted on turning her negative into something positive.
During a fight that would include kidney failure, temporary blindness and seven rounds of chemotherapy, Michelle urged Rod – a private guy, remember – to promote the need for more people to join the national blood marrow donor registry. His plea is credited with prompting more than 70,000 calls in a short span. While no match was found for Michelle, Rod knows many other children were saved and considers them all “my children.”
The success of that campaign made Carew want to do something similar for heart disease.
Before even receiving the LVAD, he already was telling Rhonda about what would become Heart of 29. Around Thanksgiving, he took the first big step by revealing his odyssey to Sports Illustrated and AHA News, then in a conference call with other media.
Clyde Wright, a pitcher who faced Carew plenty of times, read one of those stories. It prompted him to get a checkup.
Doctors found four blocked arteries. A quadruple bypass later, Wright is doing great, giving Heart of 29 its first victory.
There’s one more important thing to know about Carew’s condition. He’s not sick.
He may look and feel like a bionic man, but he is healthy.
Healthy enough to shine at every TwinsFest event. Healthy enough to push his black cat Taz in a stroller throughout Target Field. Healthy enough to take Taz into the visiting clubhouse and scare the daylights out of cat-phobic Twins infielder Eduardo Escobar. Healthy enough to take his niece and her family out to a nice dinner, then spend the next night at the home of his dear friend Tony Oliva, swapping stories about their days as teammates, roommates and two of the best hitters in baseball.
Healthy enough to keep traveling.
In a few weeks, Rod, Rhonda and Taz will be in Fort Myers, Florida, for spring training with the Twins. While he’ll continue spreading the word about Heart of 29, this will be a work trip. He’ll be in the batting cages and clubhouses offering his expertise to any player interested. (It seems like everyone, even pitchers, could learn from a guy who was Rookie of the Year, MVP, an All-Star in 18 of his 19 seasons, piled up 3,053 hits and had a lifetime batting average of .328.)
Carew plans to return to Minneapolis for the Twin Cities Heart Walk on May 14. He’ll lead Rod’s Team, whose fundraising efforts are being boosted by the Twins. The event will be held at Target Field, starting and ending at the larger-than-life statue of him near Gate 29.
In July, the Carews plan to be in Cooperstown, New York, for the induction of the next class of Hall of Famers. Always a special weekend, it obviously will carry extra meaning this year, well beyond it being the 25th anniversary of his induction.
And then, if all goes well, sometime around August, No. 29 will get a new heart.
“I’m not afraid,” he told AHA News in his final interview of the weekend. “I’m not afraid at all. I know I’ll be in a good place one way or another.”
In nearly 50 years as a player, coach and ambassador for the Twins and Los Angeles Angels, Carew never won a World Series ring. He’s now part of both teams, so he still has two chances of adding that missing entry on his baseball resume.
Nice as that might be, it’s nothing like saving and improving lives. That’s his top priority now, with Clyde Wright serving as living proof that Carew can do it.
Heart of 29 is growing, with the Angels and the Hall of Fame vowing their support. Carew hopes more teams join his fight against the No. 1 killer of Americans. He’d love to visit every ballpark to share his three-swing approach:
- Get your heart checked regularly.
- Follow doctors’ orders.
- Know the warning signs of a heart attack so you can get help right away.
In the late innings of his life, Carew is mounting quite a rally. This man best known for his ability to hit a baseball is taking aim at a new target.
Just like Michelle would’ve wanted him to do.
More images from Carew’s Heart of 29 kickoff weekend: