Triumph, Tragedy and the Heart of Rod Carew

Rod Carew suffered a "widow maker" in September.

Rod Carew suffered a “widow maker” in September.

By Glen Sparks

Rod Carew was dead.

His died on a warm Sunday afternoon in September, just off the first tee at Cresta Verde Golf Course in southern California.

His heart blew up. He had just smacked a drive right down the middle. Suddenly, his chest burned, and his hands went cold. Alone, he struggled to the clubhouse. Paramedics rushed to the scene.

The Hall of Famer’s heart quit beating two times, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. He had 100 percent blockage in one of his main arteries. He had suffered a major heart attack, one cryptically called “a widow maker.”

Paramedics brought Carew back to life. He survived. One of the greatest hitters ever made it through another battle.

First-Ballot Hall of Famer

Eric and Olga Carew were traveling aboard a train on Oct. 1, 1945, in the Panama Canal Zone. They sat in the rear part of the train, the section reserved for “colored” passengers. Olga, expecting a child, went into labor as the train chugged along.

The conductor, when he learned what was going on, hurried to find a doctor. Luckily, Dr. Rodney Cline had booked passage. Thus the baby boy was christened Rodney Cline Carew.

Eric Carew reportedly drank too much. Rod Carew has said that his troubled dad beat him many times. At 14, Rod Carew left Panama with his mom, three sisters and brother for New York City. Eric stayed in Panama.

Rodney, or Cline as many people called him, didn’t play baseball at George Washington High School in upper Manhattan. Instead, he played with the New York Cavaliers, a semi-pro club.

A scout for the Minnesota Twins liked the way Carew peppered the ball all over the field. He arranged a tryout at Yankee Stadium. Carew passed. The Twins signed him for $400 a month, plus a $5,000 signing bonus, on June 24, 1964.

Carew made the big club out of spring training in 1967. He went on to hit .292 that season. He made the American League All-Star team and earned Rookie of the Year honors. Following a down season in 1968 (He still made the All-Star team, but he hit what would be a career-low, .273), the left-handed hitting infielder batted better than .300 for the next 15 years.

He won seven batting titles during his 19-year career and famously made a run at .400 in 1977, settling at .388 and cover shots for Sports Illustrated and Time. He also led the league in hits (239), runs (128), triples (16), on-base percentage (.449) and OPS (1.019). Never a true power hitter, Carew tied for his career-high in home runs that season (14) and drove in a career-high 100 runs. Not surprisingly, writers voted him the A.L. MVP.

Carew stood up to bat like a cat ready to strike. A wad of chewing tobacco bulged out of one cheek. Carew hit from a pronounced open stance and smacked pitches with a magical bat.

Over his 12 seasons in the Twin Cities, Carew hit .334. Following the 1978 season, he took his magical bat to California. In seven seasons as an Angel, he batted .314 and made six more All-Star teams.

Carew retired after the 1985 season. He hit .328 lifetime and collected 3,053 hits. The 18-time All-Star also stole 353 career bases (including seven steals of home in 1969). He easily made the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1991, with 90.5 percent of the vote.

Rod Carew slaps a hit in Yankee Stadium.

Rod Carew slaps a hit in Yankee Stadium.

“Have a Safe Journey”

Following retirement, Carew settled into retirement in Orange County, Calif. He did some coaching, both for the Angels and, later, the Milwaukee Brewers. In September 1995, Carew’s 18-year-old daughter Michelle was told that she had a rare form of leukemia. She needed a blood-marrow donor. Michelle’s two sisters were matches for each another, but not for Michelle.

Carew, a private man, went public. Could someone please help? Carew’s pleas went nationwide. The registry rolls for bone-marrow transplants increased by 500,000 that first year, according to a SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) article. Tragically, no match was found for Michelle Carew. She died April 17, 1996.

“All we did is we told her we love her, that we’re all here, and I just told her to have a safe journey,” Carew said, according to a New York Times article.

A few years before, Carew went through a cancer scare of his own. Doctors found and removed a cancerous growth from the inside of his cheek, a result of chewing tobacco. Carew’s teeth and gums were also a mess. He needed more than $100,000 of dental work to get his mouth back into shape, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

TwinsFest

Carew now lives with—and because of—a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) that sits inside his chest. The LVAD pumps blood because his heart muscle cannot. Doctors installed the device during a six-hour procedure at a San Diego hospital, according to an article in the Orange County Register. He can still play golf, travel, and, yes, go to spring training.

He feels better every day, he told columnist Marcia C. Smith at the Register. He is mending nicely thanks to the devotion of his second wife, Rhonda, and the care he has received at five California hospitals.

On Jan. 30, Carew, who turned 70 years old Oct. 1, attended TwinsFest at Target Field in Minneapolis. The Twins, behind skipper Paul Molitor and young, talented players like Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, hope to make a racket in the A.L. Central this season. One of their biggest cheerleaders will be Rod Carew.

Yes, of course, he’ll be at the Twins’ spring training facility in Ft. Myers, Fla., he told the fans at TwinsFest, according to an article in the Twin Cities Pioneer Press. He’ll drive fellow Twins great Tony Oliva to the ballpark every morning.

“Oh, I’m going to be at spring training,” he told the Press.

Hall of Fame Weekend

Baseball began giving out the Commissioner’s Award in 1971. It honored one player each year for his hard work in the community. The Commissioner’s Award was renamed the Roberto Clemente Award after the Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder died while on a mercy mission to Nicaragua on Dec. 30, 1972.

Carew won the Award in 1977, nearly 40 years ago. Now, the man who also did so much to raise awareness for leukemia research 20 years ago plans to do the same for heart-attack prevention. The first Twin Cities Heart Walk is scheduled for May 14 at Target Field. This event is part of a year-long Heart of 29 campaign. (Carew won uniform No. 29 as a player.)

The 2016 Hall of Fame induction is set for Sunday, July 24. Rod Carew plans to be there.

(You can read more about Carew at his web site.)

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