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 – Sitting on a wooden bench behind an indoor batting cage, Rod Carew watched intently as Minnesota Twins second baseman Brian Dozier crushed pitch after pitch.
Crushing the ball is what made Dozier an All-Star. Yet swinging for the fences also causes Dozier to strike out a lot. He came to spring training hoping to change that and sought help from Carew, one of the best contact hitters in baseball history.
So Carew studied Dozier. And when he saw Dozier smack a pitch from a wider, lower stance than usual, Carew perked up.
“Hey, Doze,” Carew said. “Do you ever do that with two strikes?”
Carew walked inside the protective netting to chat about what ballplayers call their “two-strike approach.” It’s basically a recalibration from trying to hit the ball hard to trying to hit the ball, period.
Carew recommended that Dozier use that wider, lower stance and a small stride – none, if possible. This would improve his stability and bat control, giving him a better chance of putting the ball in play. The tradeoff is that it would reduce his power.
“You always hear that stuff,” said Dozier, 28, and entering his fifth big-league season. “But when Rod says it, it means more.”
Dozier spent the next few days getting comfortable with the change. As luck would have it, in his first at-bat of the spring, he faced a count of no balls, two strikes.
He settled into the batter’s box wider and lower. He took a shorter stride. He then whacked the ball into the right-field corner for a double. Dozier faced two strikes in his next at-bat and hit another double.
Baseball players constantly refine their swing. While it’s noteworthy whenever it works, this adjustment is especially significant considering all that Carew overcame to deliver it.
Over the past six months, Carew suffered a heart attack and two episodes of cardiac arrest, then went into severe heart failure; the damaged muscle could no longer efficiently pump blood throughout his body. He needed a transplant but was only healthy enough to receive a machine that handles the pumping for his left ventricle.
Talk about being down to your last strike.
Modern medicine and wonderful caregivers saved Carew’s life. Baseball drove his recovery, with spring training providing a target.
Spring training has been a constant in Carew’s life since 1964. The camaraderie and optimism that come with the dawn of every baseball season are part of his body clock, like people whose spirits improve with the blooming of spring flowers and fall foliage.
Plus, Carew knew he could still make a difference. So he resolved to make more than a token appearance in Florida; he was determined to put in his usual three-week coaching stint.
“I saw him in January and I didn’t think he’d be able to come here,” Dozier said. “But that’s Rod, man. He’s always helping other people.”
And that leads to the other driving force behind his recovery.
Before Carew even received the machine that keeps him alive – a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD – he told his wife, Rhonda, that he wanted to use his story to help fight heart disease.
Carew reached out to the American Heart Association and together created “Heart of 29.” The campaign, named for the jersey number he wore throughout his career, aims to spread the word about the risks of heart disease and how to prevent it.
Carew shared his story via Sports Illustrated and AHA News the Monday before Thanksgiving. The details scared Carew’s big-league contemporary Clyde Wright into action, especially since Carew, at 70, was younger and seemingly in better shape. Wright got a check-up, which led to a quadruple bypass. When Wright turned 75 on Feb. 20, he celebrated by calling Carew and once again thanking him.
Heart of 29 really got rolling in January at TwinsFest, a fan event in Minneapolis. It was Carew’s first big trip from his California home and his first public appearance since his ordeal.
The effort was worth it thanks to the outpouring of emotion from friends and fans. Scenes from that weekend were featured in an hourlong special on MLB Network. As that show aired, Rhonda’s phone rang twice. First it was Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, then another of Carew’s contemporaries, both wanting Rod to know they were going to get their hearts checked.
Thus, another reason for Carew to attend spring training was to have an extended platform for his message about fighting the No. 1 killer of Americans.
Rod, Rhonda and their beloved cats Taz and Mynx arrived in Fort Myers four days before the first full-squad workout. This gave them plenty of time to set up his LVAD equipment, find the clinic he’d visit every few days and rest up for the grind ahead.
On the first work day, Carew jumped into his usual routine of picking up longtime teammate, roommate and close friend Tony Oliva at 7 a.m. As they walked into the clubhouse, Carew saw someone wearing a rosy T-shirt bearing the Heart of 29 logo.
Then another. And another.
Players and coaches, front-office executives and clubhouse grunts – everyone wore the shirt. After a team meeting, 100-plus people gathered for a group photo, with Carew right in the middle. Heart of 29 had its first signature image and the Twins distributed it to media outlets.
“It was like, `Man, this is huge,’” Carew said. “To have all those guys participating in this, I couldn’t imagine anything more.”
Two days later, Carew was sitting in the dugout of the Twins’ spring ballpark when he noticed the Heart of 29 logo splashed across a billboard along the outfield wall. At the first home game, both the logo and Carew took center stage.
The two newest members of the team’s Hall of Fame – recently retired outfielder Torii Hunter and retired broadcaster John Gordon – went to the mound to throw the ceremonial first pitch. The baseballs they would toss were then delivered by Carew.
The crowd of about 8,000 began to cheer, the sound rising with Carew’s every step. For a guy who cries easily these days, Carew had no chance of holding back the tears.
Carew’s LVAD is inside his heart but powered outside his body via a wire connected to a controller and two batteries. The attachments all fit into a vest.
Carew wore the black vest outside his clothes from the day he got it.
But when he received the Heart of 29 T-shirt, Carew slipped it over the vest. The gear has remained under his clothes ever since.
“It makes me feel like I’m not sick,” he said, smiling.
In fact, Carew is not sick.
Still, the LVAD is a reminder that things aren’t normal. And while the machine could power him for many years, he hopes to go on the transplant waiting list this summer.
As much as Carew wanted this spring training to be like any other, he knew it couldn’t be. His biggest concession was not throwing batting practice and rarely doing the modified pitching known as soft toss. He also spent less time working on bunting and baserunning.
He mostly analyzed swings, something he did so well over his Hall of Fame career and 10 seasons as a batting coach for the Angels and Brewers.
Every morning, Carew got comfortable behind the indoor batting cage or against an outdoor cage, offering advice in English and Spanish.
“I like to be in front of the cage, but I’m happy to take what I can get,” Carew said. “Rhonda said, `Honey, it’s not going to be the way it’s always been. Just take it one day at a time and see what happens.’ Smart woman.”
For the first week, Carew and Oliva were on the field until about 1 p.m. Things changed once games began.
On days of road games, Carew stayed at the Twins’ facility, working until about noon with guys who didn’t make the trip. For home games, he spent a few hours around the cages, then watched most of the game from the dugout.
Carew also took every opportunity to chat about heart health. In conversations with players, coaches, team employees, fans and reporters, his message remained consistent: “Go get your heart checked.”
“People have to start taking care of their hearts a lot more so they don’t get a big surprise like I did,” Carew said.
The longer spring training went, the more Carew wore down. All the standing hurt his lower back. His feet began to swell. He took afternoon naps.
Funny thing is, that happens every year.
“He forgets how grueling the schedule can be during spring training and finds himself exhausted,” Rhonda said.
About halfway through, Carew started going in later on days of home games. That helped his stamina, at least until he caught a respiratory infection that was going around the clubhouse. Quick action by caregivers kept his case milder than others.
He’s throwing out the first pitch at the Twins’ home opener April 11 and will be there April 13 when they debut red jerseys featuring a Heart of 29 patch. The Angels and Dodgers are also planning Heart of 29 events, and the Hall of Fame is getting involved, too.
“I’d like to make the rounds of every major league club,” Carew said. “I’d like to talk to the coaches, especially. I want everyone to start thinking more about their hearts.”
More images from Carew at Minnesota Twins spring training.