ANAHEIM, Calif. – What life looks like at 71, at any age but Rod Carew is 71 now, is a matter of glorious, retched perspective. He’d tried several times Thursday evening to hoist himself to the top of the dugout bench here, until finally he smiled and settled for the reachable bench below, foiled by the strain of years and miles and plain old gravity. A man learns to pick his battles, lest they pick him first.
“It’s been a long trip,” he said. “It’s been a journey. A tough journey. … It hurts.”
Except for the slight tremble in his hands and lips, Carew bore the steadiness of his faith, of a body learning itself again, of certainty. He filled out a blue jacket and red golf shirt. He laughed at his own joke, something about why doctors insisted he apply plenty of sunscreen daily.
“Figure it out,” he said they told him. “You got a white guy’s heart.”
That still cracks him up, more than five months after the transplant.
Carew spent Thursday night at Angel Stadium in a booth behind home plate. He works for the Minnesota Twins as a special assistant, so he was here for that, and he spent seven years as an Angel, so he was here for that, and he is a fan of Albert Pujols, and was here for that. Thirty-two years ago, he’d stood a few feet from where Pujols did Thursday night, gotten a fastball from Frank Viola and lobbed it into left field for his 3,000th hit. He knows the round numbers, how we honor them, how they come and go. Then, one day, you’re standing on a golf course, and the last thing you remember is one paramedic shouting to another, “Hurry up, dammit, we’re losing him! Hurry up!” and understanding that the him they were losing was him.
He was brought back three times that day. In December, he received a new heart and kidney from late NFL player Konrad Reuland of the Baltimore Ravens. As an 11-year-old, Reuland met Carew. That’s about as close as a guy can get to starting over, to deepening one’s relationship with the glorious, retched perspective. His responsibility now, he said, is to the next guy, to the one who also didn’t take his medication for a few days and then forgot all about it, and to the guy who also figured that sort of scary stuff happens to other people, and to the guy who also, quite suddenly, considered the consequences. He calls it the Heart of 29 campaign, which helps raise money for the American Heart Association.
“The only thing that I thought about was my wife,” Rod said. “Who’s going to take care of her? And how’s she going to do?”
Rod and Rhonda sat side-by-side Thursday night for the first pitch, in a purple-gray dusk. Two floors down, in a courtyard off the main entrance, stood a statue of Michelle Carew. She is Rod’s daughter from his first marriage. She died at 18 of leukemia, 21 years ago. He visits the courtyard when he comes to the ballpark, and sees his beautiful girl, forever 18. He carries that, too, with weary grace.
Most nights Carew watches the Twins on television, then finds a late game and watches that too. He’s getting stronger, eating properly, filling out again, rehabbing three days a week, two hours at a time. He intends to be in Cooperstown this summer to welcome Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines and Ivan Rodriguez into the Hall of Fame.
That’ll be part of the journey, the next part, followed by the next part, and he’ll remind himself of all the reasons the journey continues, from the pain that struck him to the heart he carries to the woman he sits beside.
“I remember I just asked myself, ‘Why? Why?’” Carew said. “I should never ask questions. What you don’t understand, it’s not in our control anyway. … I’ll tell you, I pray a lot now. I talk to my friend upstairs every day.”