Nearly four years ago, baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew suffered a massive heart attack while golfing. He survived, but five months later doctors told him he would require a heart transplant.
That news left the 18-time All-Star very scared, but also strengthened his faith.
“I think that once I got through the idea that I was going to need another heart, all I did every day was I talked to my Father upstairs on a daily basis,” Carew said Saturday during his appearance at the “Heart of a Champion” promotional event held at Peoria’s Louisville Slugger Sports Complex and presented by the OSF HealthCare Cardiovascular Institute.
“He taught me to be patient; He told me that He wasn’t going to take me too soon, and that I still had a lot of work to do here,” continued Carew. “I started to feel a lot more comfortable. When you believe and you trust in Him, what else can you do?”
Following his successful transplant surgery in December 2016, Carew and his wife Rhonda decided their mission was to spread awareness of how to live heart healthy and of the importance of organ donation. They launched the “Heart of 29” campaign, using the uniform number retired in his honor by both the Twins and Angels franchises.
“The campaign’s mission is to let people become aware of the heart that God gave them, not to take advantage of it (with) drinking, smoking, drugs and things like that,” said Carew. “They have to take care of it because if they don’t, they’re not going to be here.
“I was never a drinker or a smoker, so I didn’t have any problems with things like that. So when I first came out of the heart attack and the operation, I just told my wife ‘Honey, we’ve got a lot of work to do,’ and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Carew’s first personal experience with the importance of organ donation came in 1995 when Michelle, one of his three daughters from his first marriage, was in need of a bone marrow transplant.
“I lost my youngest daughter when she was 18 years old to leukemia, and there were a lot of people out there trying to find a match for her,” said Carew. “Now I have the chance to help a lot of people, and that’s what my wife and I have dedicated our lives to do.”
Shawn Wagner, the vice president of the Cardiovascular Institute, sees Carew as the embodiment of perseverance.
“Here’s a guy who had everything and in just a couple minutes, his whole world changed,” said Wagner. “I think he is an example of someone who went through something extremely challenging and persevered through it, and not only has he persevered but now he’s sharing the message with others.”
Carew admitted he drew some of the strength needed to make it through his heart attack and subsequent transplant from his playing career – a career filled with noteworthy accomplishments. He was voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility after amassing 3,053 hits over 19 seasons.
He was named American League Rookie of the Year in 1967, Most Valuable Player in 1977 and was selected to 18 consecutive All-Star teams. But he said his fondest memories were getting his first big-league hit, and receiving seven standing ovations in one game with Minnesota.
“It was amazing because all those people in the stands in Minneapolis remember me coming up as a young kid and I had spent all my time there,” he said. “Even now when I go back to Minneapolis, I’m really well received.”
With the proliferation of power hitters in the modern game, Carew likely will be remembered as the last of his kind. He hit just 92 career home runs, making him the only player to debut after World War II with more than 3,000 hits and less than 100 homers. He’s not a fan of the way the game is played nowadays.
“I really don’t like it because so many good young players are not doing the things they’re supposed to be doing,” he said. “All they’re doing is thinking about home runs and trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark. They’re suffering because that’s all the organization wants. They don’t want you to hit the ball the other way or use the whole field anymore, so you’re stuck.”
A seven-time American League batting champion, Carew won his 1972 crown without hitting a single home run – the only time that has happened in either league in more than 100 years. His highest strikeout total was 91 in his 1967 rookie season.
“So many kids are walking back to the dugout after a called third strike, and to me that’s the longest walk on a baseball field,” he said. “I hated striking out, and I hate to see these guys striking out 150 to 200 times a year and they don’t care. That would bother me tremendously. So, I don’t like it at all.”
Among the many Carew fans attending the event, Caleb Fowler felt compelled to appear. Fowler forged a special friendship with Carew in the early 1990s but had fallen out of touch. He made an 11-hour trip from southeast Arkansas for a reunion.
“Our friendship is way beyond baseball; he changed my life. He started blessing people many years ago, not just at these events,” said Fowler. “I think God put us together. That’s the only thing it could’ve been. You don’t meet people like Rod Carew and have him do what he did for me and it not be God.”
Even Carew’s transplant itself seemed to have a touch of divine guidance. The donor was an NFL tight end named Konrad Reuland, who met Carew as a child and attended middle school with his children.
“I didn’t know that at the time (of the surgery),” said Carew, “but I remember meeting this kid – I think he was about 11 years old – and he came up to me and he says ‘Are you Rod Carew?’ and I says ‘yeah.’
“He says ‘it’s nice to meet you’ and he says ‘I want to be an athlete when I grow up.’ So I said, ‘Study first. Make your books count.’ He says ‘I’m a good student and I’m going to keep studying.’”
Remaining a good student, Reuland began his college career at Notre Dame before transferring to Stanford. After his brief NFL career, Reuland suffered a brain aneurysm in late November 2016 and died two weeks later, allowing for Carew’s transplant surgery.
“The next time I heard about this kid, he was 29 years old,” Carew said, “and he’s the one that after all that time came back and gave me a heart and gave me a kidney to save my life.”
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