Ready to throw out first pitch

BOSTON – Wearing a Red Sox jersey featuring his name on the back and a Heart of 29 patch over his heart, Baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew stood in the middle of the diamond at Fenway Park and soaked in the scene.

It had been many years since he’d even visited this famous old stadium. Now, here he was, a guy who’d spent 19 years playing against the Red Sox.  He’d done quite well at their expense, too.

Yet from fans to players to the people who run the Red Sox, Carew was treated as if he was a hometown hero. So as he prepared to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Thursday night’s game between Boston and the Minnesota Twins, Carew smiled in amazement.

“I can’t tell you how much this means to him,” his wife Rhonda said. “For them to do all this is really something special.”

One week after the American League batting title was named in his honor and 10 months after nearly dying of heart disease, Carew and his Heart of 29 campaign took center stage at Fenway Park. The Red Sox became the fourth team to showcase Carew’s efforts to boost awareness and prevention of heart disease, the No. 1 killer of Americans.

Rod with NESN crew

Carew suffered a heart attack and cardiac arrest on Sept. 20, then went into extreme heart failure. His heart muscle was too weak to efficiently pump blood to the rest of his body so doctors implanted a left ventricular assist device to do it for him. While the machine has made it possible for him to resume a somewhat normal life, he’s hoping to get a new heart. That could happen soon; his initial meeting with the doctors who can put him on the transplant waiting list comes next week.

Early in his ordeal, Carew told his wife he wanted to use his story to boost awareness and prevention of heart disease. That led to the creation of Heart of 29, with appearances thus far in Minneapolis, Southern California and Florida, and games hosted by the Twins, Dodgers and Angels. He also appeared at the All-Star Game in San Diego.

“I asked early on about bringing the campaign to the East Coast,” Carew told Twins radio listeners during a second-inning interview. “I’m glad we’re here.”

Carew’s visit to Fenway Park began with an interview on the Red Sox TV’s pregame show on a set outside the stadium. On the way back inside, a man in a Red Sox hat and shirt, and bearing a thick New England accent, stopped him to say, “God bless you, Mr. Carew. I loved watching you.”

Carew smiled and recalled that fans here always treated him well.

“I used to enjoy coming in here,” he said. “The stands are so close to the field, you can hear a lot of things, and they never booed me.”

The real fun began when he went to the dugout to get ready to throw out the first pitch.

His first visitor was Red Sox batting coach Chili Davis. Carew was Davis’ batting coach on the Angels in the 1990s and they’ve remained close friends. Davis visited Carew at his Orange County home during his recovery.

Posing with Chili

Manager John Farrell soon joined them. Farrell has non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Carew was quick to ask about Farrell’s health. The conversation shifted back to Carew and then turned into show-and-tell, with Carew pulling out the gear that keeps him alive and explaining how it works.

Show and tell with Chili and Farrell

“Keep the faith,” Farrell told him. “Stay strong.”

While chatting with Davis, Carew noticed something – a Heart of 29 patch on his jersey. Carew turned to Rhonda with a look that suggested, “Where did that come from?” She smiled and shared the surprise that both the Red Sox and Twins would be wearing them on their jerseys for tonight’s game. The Twins and White Sox did it for a game in Minneapolis in April, and thanks to a series of last-minute, behind-the-scenes actions by both teams, Major League Baseball and Rhonda, they pulled it off again.

Carew already had seen a Red Sox jersey he’d be receiving with his name and the number he wore throughout his career (29, thus the name of the campaign). It didn’t have that patch the last time he saw it and Rhonda showed him that now it did.

After he slipped on the jersey, a series of Red Sox stars lined up to greet Carew.

Dustin Pedroia led off the parade. He’d been seated in the dugout looking around when he noticed Carew. He beamed like one of the autograph-seeking kids leaning over the dugout as he made his way over.

Pedroia looking up to Rod

Carew and Pedroia are among the handful of players to win both the AL Rookie of the Year and MVP awards. A more important bond is the LVAD. Pedroia told Carew he’s been following the story because his father-in-law’s life has been extended by receiving the device three years ago.

Next up was David “Big Papi” Ortiz. In his final season, the popular slugger is usually the center of attention wherever he goes. But he, too, turned fan-like as he circled around the dugout to greet Carew. Their relationship dates to the early, difficult years of Ortiz’s career, when he was with the Twins.

“I love you,” Ortiz told Carew. “I’m pulling for you.”

Papi and Rod

Outfielder Chris Young used to work with Carew at batting cages in California. Now on the disabled list, Young wore a Heart of 29 patch on his sweatshirt and savored his time chatting with Carew. So did slugger Hanley Ramirez, whom Carew befriended early in his career.

Shaking hands with Hanley

When Carew made his way out to the field for the first pitch, a group of fellow heart disease survivors and other representatives from the American Heart Association stood behind the mound. Meanwhile, in the concourse, the AHA passed out information about Heart of 29, Life’s Simple 7 and more.

AHA booth at Fenway game

Carew continued to spread the word during a series of interviews. In addition to the pregame TV chat, he spent time during the game with the Twins radio and TV crews, the Red Sox TV crew and the Red Sox Spanish radio broadcast. (The Twins TV team of Dick Bremer and Roy Smalley had fun teasing Carew for wearing a Red Sox jersey.)

“I have some good days and some bad days,” Carew told the Red Sox TV audience. “I have to watch myself. … My doctors have said they’re going to find me a heart, and I can’t wait.”

Jerry Remy played second base for 10 years during Carew’s career and is now an analyst on their TV broadcasts. He asked Carew something he’d long wanted to know: Was it true that Carew would scan the infield, pick out the weakest player and then hit the ball at them … and, if so, was that why Carew hit the ball at Remy so often?

Carew got a good laugh at that. While he admitted to aiming for spots, he insisted that he would target places that players had just moved from rather than specific players.

Everywhere Carew went at Fenway, he was joined by Dr. Gerald Marx, a Boston-based pediatric cardiologist who received the AHA’s Physician of the Year Award in 2013. Marx also was a key figure in connecting Carew and the AHA, as Marx happened to grow up with Carew’s business manager, Frank Pace.

Rod and Dr. Marx

Marx marveled at Carew’s stamina. For a 70-year-old guy with an LVAD who was in high demand, he sure was getting around great. If anything, Carew’s strength seemed to increase as the game went on. “Baseball therapy” seemed to be Carew’s best medicine.

“I’m really amazed by this,” Marx said.

Carew rejoined Rhonda and others in a luxury suite for a few more innings of the game. He got a surprise visit from his friend Fred Lynn, who came up from behind and greeted him with, “Hey, old dude!”

In 1975, Lynn won the AL Rookie of the Year and MVP awards while playing for the Red Sox, but finished second to Carew (then on the Twins) for the batting title. Lynn reminded Carew of blocking him from winning that crown and razzed him about the jersey. The two later played together on the then-California Angels and have remained friends.

“We could’ve used you here,” said Lynn, a member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame.

Rod and Fred laughing

Carew headed out shortly after the seventh-inning stretch with the Red Sox well on their way to what would be a 13-2 victory. Settling into his ride from the stadium, Carew looked out the window at Fenway and smiled once more.

“What an atmosphere,” he said. “What a night.”