By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
FORT MYERS, Florida – Baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew walked into the home clubhouse at the Minnesota Twins spring training facility, looked around the empty room and soaked in the moment.
“I made it,” he thought. “I’m here.”
The reaction might seem over the top for someone who’s been coming to spring training since the mid-1960s. But it was an intense moment for Carew as he returned to spring training for the first time with a new heart.
This moment also was the final item on the baseball bucket list he created more than two years ago.
On Sept. 20, 2015, Carew suffered a massive heart attack, then cardiac arrest. Weeks later, he underwent a grueling operation to have implanted a machine called a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, that took over for his failing heart.
His recovery was fueled by two passions: an awareness campaign with the American Heart Association (“Heart of 29,” named for his old jersey number) and a series of baseball-related events he wanted to experience again. The two overlapped, as it made sense to spread his message about heart health at ballparks – such as here at Fort Myers in February and March 2016.
Back then, wearing a vest that held his LVAD controller and batteries, Carew spent about four weeks on the field working with hitters. As great as it was, he left dreaming of returning with a new heart.
That December, he indeed got a new heart, plus a new kidney. He was cleared to travel in June, in time to attend the All-Star Game, the Hall of Fame induction weekend and several Twins games.
The one thing he missed: spring training. And, boy, did he miss it.
So even though Monday marked the first official day for all players, Carew arrived last week. He intentionally slipped into the stadium in the middle of the day, while players and coaches were on the field, meaning the clubhouse would be empty.
“I’m here with my new heart,” he told himself. “I don’t have machines anymore.”
At 7:43 a.m. Monday, Carew was putting balls on a tee for Bobby Wilson, a player he’s putting in extra time with this spring. They were the first two guys in any of the batting cages.
About an hour later, everyone gathered in the clubhouse for manager Paul Molitor’s camp-opening speech. When Molitor introduced Carew, players and coaches gave a rousing ovation.
“I was close to the front, so I had to maintain myself,” Carew said. “I felt like crying, but I told myself, ‘No, I’ve got to hold it in.’ ”
Carew spent the rest of the day like one of the guys, just another coach offering hitters tips about footwork or hand placement. He delivered his sage advice in English or Spanish, to veterans he’s known for years and to minor leaguers who giddily introduced themselves to “Mr. Carew.”
Carew was popular with fans, too, of course.
Everywhere he went, he was serenaded with lines like, “Great to see you, Rod!” and “Looking good!” One man proudly showed off his Heart of 29 button.
Then there was the greeting from Mary Hyland of Austin, Minnesota, a lifelong Twins fan who’d never met Carew.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said, then began to share her story.
On Sept. 20, 2015 – the day Carew suffered the kind of heart attack so lethal that it’s dubbed “the widowmaker” – her husband, Jess, suffered the same.
Jess Hyland had emergency surgery and made a strong recovery. In fact, he was elsewhere in the stadium while his wife was chatting with Carew. She eventually tracked him down. As he approached Carew, Hyland smiled, laughed and said, “I hear we have one thing in common.”
As the day wrapped up, Carew admitted that he caught himself daydreaming more than once. It was always the same dream.
“Are you really here?” he wondered.
Considering all he’s overcome, it’s surprising he feels that way. Or maybe it’s precisely because this is a last hurdle, of sorts, that thoughts are flooding him.
“I didn’t know if I was going to make it all the way back to spring training,” he said. “A lot of things had to go right for me to be here.”
In fact, while Carew was on the field, hanging in his locker was the ultimate reminder of his ordeal. Inside a string backpack with the Heart of 29 logo was the actual LVAD that used to be in his chest. He likes having it handy in case there’s ever a chance for show-and-tell.
There will be. Aside from a quick trip to Southern California this weekend for an event honoring one of the doctors who put in his LVAD, Carew plans to be in the cages shortly after 7 a.m. every morning.
“This doesn’t feel like work,” he said. “I’m relaxed. I’m teaching. The kids are listening. I’m enjoying this.
“This is my vacation.”