By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Editor’s note: On the 29th of every month, American Heart Association News will feature a story on baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew and his ongoing battle with heart disease. Carew, who wore No. 29 throughout his career, is leading “Heart of 29,” a campaign to boost awareness and prevention.
FORT MYERS, Florida – Spring training is a special time for everyone connected to baseball. Its arrival signals the end of the offseason and the dawn of a new season. All teams are undefeated and believe they are going to win it all.
Rod Carew knows the giddy sensation as well as anyone. That’s why last fall – while the baseball world was focused on the World Series and he was in a hospital fighting for his life – he set the start of spring training as a goal for his recovery. He didn’t just want to be in Fort Myers, Florida, watching the Minnesota Twins, he wanted to be on the field in his usual role as an extra hitting coach.
Shortly before 10 a.m. Saturday, fighting back tears and holding hands with his wife, Carew indeed stepped onto the lush green grass of a practice field for the first full-squad workout. He spoke with reporters, smiled for photographers and then got to work.
Carew was taking part in his 53rd straight spring training and the most meaningful since his debut. Back then, he was a wide-eyed kid several years from making the majors. Now, he’s a 70-year-old Hall of Famer with a machine under his T-shirt keeping his heart pumping. In fact, it’s quite likely that he made big-league history by taking the field with such a device.
Five months ago, Carew suffered a massive heart attack then went into cardiac arrest. More problems followed, leaving him in need of a new heart. He was too sick to even consider a transplant, so doctors hooked him up to an LVAD, a device that does what the damaged left side of his heart can’t.
The tiny contraption inside his chest attaches to a controller around his waist, all of it powered by two batteries. Everything fits into a vest that Carew usually wears outside his clothes. On Saturday, the vest was under his T-shirt.
Carew wanted to look and feel more like one of the guys, more like a ballplayer than a heart patient.
Plus, he didn’t want anything covering that T-shirt.
The rose-colored shirt displayed the logo for Heart of 29, the campaign he launched with the American Heart Association to boost awareness and prevention of heart disease. (Carew wore No. 29 throughout his career.) He knew the Twins were making shirts, but had no idea that they’d be ready on this day – or that everyone in the organization would be wearing them Saturday.
“When I walked into that locker room and I saw all the guys ready to go, it was like, `Wow, I’m here again! And they’re wearing my shirt!” Carew said with a laugh at the end of his first day.
The shirts were the first of many pleasant surprises. Another came when he walked out of the clubhouse following the team’s camp-opening meeting and heard someone calling out, “Honey! Honey!” It was his wife Rhonda, whom he’d left at the hotel a few hours earlier. Since he’d taken their rental car, he wondered how she’d gotten there. Chalk it up to another kind gesture by the Twins.
Before going to the field, Carew went into the batting cage for hitting coach Tom Brunansky’s chat with about 40 players. Carew spent the entire session in the rear of the crowd, intentionally staying back to soak it all in.
In past years, Carew would say a few words, too, elaborating on a point Brunansky made or adding something extra. But this time, Carew’s thoughts weren’t about hitting, they were about how fortunate he felt to be here. So when Brunansky asked if he had anything to add, Carew said, “No, you’ve covered it all.”
“If I had tried to talk, I probably would’ve broken down a little bit in front of the guys,” Carew said. “I’m not ashamed about crying, but it’s different around a ballfield.”
With a smile he added, “There’s no crying in baseball.”
That’s how the whole day went – serious and silly, sometimes in the same breath. It was an emotional joyride that also included many opportunities for Carew to spread his new mantra about heart health, from private conversations in English and Spanish to reminders in every interview.
“That’s what this is all about, to enlighten you guys and let you know don’t take your ticker for granted,” Carew said during an impromptu news conference after he first arrived on the practice field.
Carew takes various medicines each day and has frequent blood tests. Yet he is considered healthy. It’s a concept he sometimes struggles to accept considering all the equipment he wears and the fact he’s hoping to have a heart transplant later this year.
But being on a ballfield clearly reinvigorated him.
Carew spent most of five straight hours on his feet, going from one field to another and then another. He also spent a chunk of time inside the batting cages, scrutinizing swings and offering tips.
He was tempted to throw some pitches or at least do the underhand throws known as “soft toss” – things he routinely does at spring training – but he resisted. He’s at camp for three weeks, so decided to ease into things.
“He’s always telling me, `A man’s got to know his limitations,’” Rhonda said. “I’m glad he’s taking his own advice.”
Plopped into a folding chair at the end of the day, Carew said his goal had been to make it through the day without wearing out. After all, if he were back home in California, he probably would’ve spent the day sitting around watching TV.
“I really surprised myself,” he said. “It turned out pretty good.”
Once he returned to his hotel, an afternoon nap came easily. He awoke refreshed enough for he and Rhonda to have dinner with his former teammate and close friend Tony Oliva and his wife. Then, on Sunday, Carew was back at the field and in the cage, offering his sage advice.
Could things be any better? Sure. Perhaps next spring, when Carew plans to be here for No. 54, he’ll have a new heart. And maybe his first World Series ring.