Visiting sick kids, sponsoring golf tournaments and making public service announcements are activities we’ve come to expect from professional sports figures. But what happens when the cheering stops? How does public service fit into the life of a former pro athlete? How does one decide whether, when and where to get involved? We asked one who’s been there: baseball’s most consistent and versatile contact hitter, the remarkable Rod Carew.
During his career with the Minnesota Twins and the California Angels, Carew made a powerful impact on the game. He was ushered into the Hall of Fame with a résumé that included 18 All-Star games, 3,053 hits, a .328 batting average, and a successful stint as a hitting coach.
Carew became an Angel via trade in 1979, prompting General Manager Buzzie Bavasi to gush, “We obtained the best hitter in baseball.” With Carew in the lineup, the Angels won their division during his first season, and made it to the American League Championship Series twice. For five straight years (1979 to 1983) Carew batted over .300; in 1985, he notched his history-making 3,000th hit against none other than the Minnesota Twins.
After retiring as an active player, Carew ran a hitting school near his home in Anaheim Hills, and for nine years worked as the Angels’ hitting coach. Since his full retirement, however, Carew’s influence as a fervent champion of causes such as cancer research and heart disease prevention has touched thousands of lives well beyond the baseball diamond.
Caring for others
Carew learned about caring for others, literally, from birth. In 1945, a young Panamanian named Eric Carew and his pregnant wife, Olga, were traveling 40 miles by train to the hospital when she suddenly went into labor. A nearby nurse rushed down the aisle and delivered the baby. Also racing over was a doctor, Rodney Cline, whose assistance would never be forgotten. The baby was named Rodney Cline Carew, and nurse Margaret Allen became his godmother.
When Olga and two of her children immigrated to the United States, they settled in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, where Carew entered George Washington High School, alma mater to statesman Henry Kissinger and major leaguer Manny Ramirez.
After graduating, he joined the semi-pro New York Cavaliers and soon attended a tryout with the Minnesota Twins. Hitting line drive after screaming line drive, the Panamanian prospect quickly advanced to the “big show” as a second baseman for the Twins and, at 22, was named the American League’s Rookie of the Year in 1967.
Carew’s dedication to community service springs in part from the lessons he learned in the Twins clubhouse.
“Playing alongside [future Hall of Famers] Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva and watching the way those guys carried themselves had a big impact on me,” recalled Carew. “I wanted to carry myself that way. I remember Killebrew telling me that it doesn’t cost anything to be nice.”
In 1975, Carew received Panama’s Order of Vasco Nùñez de Balboa, awarded to an individual who has made a major contribution to relations with other countries. Two years later, he was honored with Major League Baseball’s Roberto Clemente Award, which goes to the player who best exemplifies the game on and off the field.
After an accolade-laden 19 years in the majors, Carew knew exactly where he was going. Ballplayers are away from home so much that all he wanted was time with his family.
“When I came out [to California,] my daughters asked to go to a drive-in,” he said. “I had a Chevy truck so I put them on top to watch the movie. You can’t do that in Minnesota because of the mosquitoes. After about 10 minutes they said, ‘Daddy, no mosquitoes! We want to stay in California.’ I’m glad we did.”
Carew couldn’t resist the call to service. And to figure out the best way to answer that call, he followed a simple plan.
“There were things out there that I liked, and I felt that if I got involved it would bring some good. I never wanted to put my name on something. I wanted to be active and inside of it, so I could really make a difference.”
‘Daddy, Keep Helping These Kids’
Philanthropists, celebrities and pro athletes often explain that what they do is for emotional, rather than practical, reasons. The causes Rod Carew embraces are, simply put, deeply personal. Since his retirement, the baseball icon has endured such a degree of loss and health scares that a friend described them as biblical.
In 1995, Carew’s youngest daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. The only hope for her was a bone marrow transplant. Tragically, neither of her sisters was a matching donor and no other candidate was found. Eighteen-year-old Michelle was laid to rest a year later near her grandfather in a Minneapolis cemetery.
From that loss came the retired superstar’s greatest charitable cause. For more than 20 years, Carew has partnered with the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation to host the annual Rod Carew Children’s Cancer Golf Classic at Pelican Hill Golf Club.®
“I remember checking Michelle into Children’s Hospital of Orange,” said Carew. “She noticed all these kids running around the halls with their IV poles, kicking soccer balls, and she said, ‘Daddy, no matter what happens, I want you to keep helping these kids.’ To this day, I’m doing it. When Michelle was sick only 50% of these kids were beating leukemia. Today, 90% of them have a chance to make it.
“Every year, we seem to sell the charity event out,” Carew said. “What’s nice is, we see the same people coming back every year. I know they’re doing it for Michelle and for the cause.”
The pitcher, Catfish Hunter, was feared by most baseball players, and with just cause. But one player scared him right back: Rod Carew. “He has no weakness,” Hunter said of Carew. “Pitch him inside, outside, high, low, fast stuff, breaking balls, anything you can throw he can handle.”
But on a sunny Sunday last September, 11 days before his 70th birthday, Carew faced a pitch he couldn’t hit. He suffered a massive heart attack— the kind they call The Widow-Maker. During frantic efforts to save him, his heart stopped beating…twice.
Carew now waits for a new heart suitable for transplant, or for his own to heal. In the meantime, he wears a black vest with two large pockets weighed down by batteries. The Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) pumps blood through his body because his heart no longer can, and promises some semblance of an active life for a man who for seven decades embodied strength and determination.
And through this latest personal challenge, Carew discovered his second community focus: heart disease prevention. “It gives me something else to work with,” he said of his ordeal. “Get people to check their hearts and understand that once their ticker stops, they’re in trouble.”
Carew’s ticker may be physically compromised these days. But, emotionally, psychologically, charitably? It’s as healthy as a horse.