Among the many changes in Rod Carew’s life since he nearly died twice last September from a major heart attack — from the machinery he must wear to keep his heart pumping, to the determination he has found to regain his strength and normalize his life, to the anticipation he feels over undergoing a heart transplant later this year — one new facet of the Hall of Famer’s life captured the emotions of a big crowd of Twins fans on Saturday.
“I’m not afraid to cry in front of people anymore,” Carew said through tears as he recounted twice being revived after his heart stopped on Sept. 20. He was hospitalized in five different hospitals until finally being released two days before Christmas, he said, and “I cried every day in that damn hospital.”
He was able to smile at Target Field on Saturday, though, as he acknowledged loud cheers and several standing ovations from a large crowd of fans at TwinsFest, his first public appearance since the heart attack. Looking thin but hardly fragile, the 70-year-old Carew thanked the public for get-well wishes, declared his resolve to take part in spring training next month and announced a new campaign, Heart of 29, to raise money for the American Heart Association and awareness of heart disease.
“I’m living a bionic life. Wherever I go, this bag has to go with me. This is what runs my heart,” Carew said, lifting the backpack-like package that’s strapped around his waist and plugs into the wall at night. “I don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”
The 18-time All-Star and 1977 AL MVP, accompanied by his wife, Rhonda — “my drill instructor,” he joked of her devotion to his recovery — held the crowd spellbound as they described what “this” meant: an attack with no warning signs, emergency surgery and two complete stoppages of his heart.
“I lost my life twice that day,” Carew said as he recounted his memories of being revived by paramedics. He recalled seeing a light around the doctors as they prepared to use defibrillators on him, and wondered whether it was his guardian angel. “They brought me back to life, took me to the hospital, and at the end, almost lost me again. They had to paddle me again.”
Sometime in April, he hopes to be cleared to receive a heart transplant, a prospect that he said is far more exhilarating than frightening. “I’ve spoken to some of the guys who have had heart transplants, and they’re living normal lives and really enjoying themselves,” Carew said. “So I’m really looking forward to it.”
The seven-time batting champion is slowly regaining his strength, his determination and even his weight, now up to 187 pounds, not counting the 8 pounds of batteries that his left-ventrical assist device requires him to carry everywhere. He’s walking up to 2 miles a day at his Orange County, Calif., home, has returned to the driving range in hopes of resuming his golf game and made it clear Saturday that no heart attack will keep him from Fort Myers, Fla., next month.
“Oh, I’m going to spring training,” he said to cheers and applause from the audience. His goal, he said, is to be walking 7 miles a day by the time he arrives in Florida.
He’ll work with rookies on their bunting and baserunning, as he does every spring, and said he’s particularly looking forward to helping speedster Byron Buxton become a better bunter. Carew even has given some thought to how he can take his regular turn pitching batting practice. “I can move the batteries around,” he said, “and put the pockets in different positions to allow me to throw overhand or soft toss.”
Those instincts to help others have guided him ever since his retirement from baseball in 1985. And while helping a ballplayer develop his skills is rewarding, Carew said saving lives is even better. That’s what happened when he became a national spokesman for the Be The Match bone-marrow donation program after his 18-year-old daughter, Michelle, died in 1996, and it’s what he intends to happen with the Heart of 29 initiative. He’s already begun; on Saturday, he repeatedly urged well-wishers, even media members, to undergo a heart checkup.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” he said of learning that lives have been saved by such work, and he cited one example in particular. Former Angels pitcher Clyde Wright, who faced Carew dozens of times during their major league careers, scheduled an appointment with a heart doctor after hearing of Carew’s plight, and doctors discovered a 97 percent blockage in an artery. Wright underwent quadruple bypass surgery a week later. “So there’s one life I’ve saved,” Carew said. “Hopefully I can save a lot more lives because of what’s happened to me.”
The Twins intend to help, in part by staging the Twin Cities Heart Walk at Target Field on May 14, by matching up to $10,000 in pledged contributions at the event, and by wearing red jerseys on Fridays as part of a “red-out” promotion, with Heart of 29 patches on the sleeves for the first one April 13. Portions of each ticket sold will be donated to the American Heart Association.
“He was active. We thought he was in great shape. He certainly did not look like he was about to turn 70. So when this happened, it was really an eye-opener,” Rhonda said. “So when he say, ‘Get your heart checked,’ he means it — with his entire heart.”