PLAYING ALONE AT Cresta Verde Golf Course in Corona, Calif., on the sunny Sunday of Sept. 20, Rod Carew hit his drive off the first tee precisely where he drove so many of his 3,053 hits with the Twins and the Angels: "Right down the middle," the Hall of Famer says.
Eleven days before his 70th birthday, Carew stepped off the tee box and felt his chest burn and his hands go clammy. He retreated to the clubhouse, lay on the floor and asked a woman there to call a paramedic. "The next thing I saw was a man with paddles in his hands," Carew says. "He was yelling, 'We're losing him! We can't lose him!' Then I blacked out."
Carew (right, in 2010) had suffered a massive heart attack, "the kind they call the Widow Maker," says Rhonda, his wife of 14 years. And though doctors told Carew he was lucky to be alive—his heart stopped beating twice—he hasn't always felt fortune-kissed. "My wife will tell you I get up in the morning and cry and wonder, Why me?" says Carew, who is convalescing at a friend's house in a San Diego suburb after open-heart surgery and seven weeks in five hospitals. "But you can't say that. I go back to when my youngest daughter was dying. I never asked my friend upstairs, Why me?"
A left ventricular assist device (LVAD), a kind of mechanical heart, has been implanted in Carew's chest to assist his damaged heart. The device typically acts as a bridge until a patient can receive a heart transplant. After a brief silence, the most elegant hitter of his generation puts his face in his hands and sobs. "I was dead," he says, "and they brought me back to life."
Carew has lived a life marked by near-Biblical trials. As a child, he was beaten by his father. At 50, he lost his 18-year-old daughter, Michelle, to leukemia while she waited for a bone-marrow transplant. His first marriage, to Marilynn Levy—they have two other daughters—didn't survive that tragedy. Between these agonies, while bedeviled by a fear of flying, Carew was a .328 hitter of unsurpassed calm and beauty. "Relaxed" is how he describes the feeling of facing a Nolan Ryan fastball: "With baseball, I could get away."
Some patients keep the LVAD permanently when transplantation is not an option. "I don't know if I'm going to be bionic or what," says Carew, who is concentrating on becoming healthy enough to qualify for the transplant list. In the meantime, he is moved to tears by his 26-year-old son, Devon. "He cleans me up and puts me on the toilet," Carew says. "This kid really loves me. My wife does the same thing. Where do people get that sense of wanting to help others in distress?"
This support, as much as the batteries that power his LVAD, fuels Carew now. He has been buoyed by the few friends—Don Baylor, Johnny Bench—who have learned of his plight. Carew's advisory contracts with the Twins and the Angels expired 10 days after his heart attack, and both teams renewed him for 2016.
He decided to speak publicly here in the hope of inspiring people to maintain better heart health, just as he spoke for leukemia patients seeking bone-marrow transplants when Michelle died in 1996.
As a young player, Carew visited a Minnesota hospital at the insistence of Twins owner Calvin Griffith. A nine-year-old boy wanted to meet his hero. "He'd been burned severely," Carew says, "and when I got there, they were scrubbing him. And he was screaming. And when he saw me he said, 'Don't get mad at me, Mr. Carew, but it hurts. It hurts.' The kid was scarred for the rest of his life, and he was worried about me hearing him cry. Well, I just turned to the window and started crying." He's been visiting hospitals—and unabashedly crying—ever since. "I'm supposed to be this big guy," he says, "but I cry a lot."
The night before his heart attack Carew participated in a fund-raising walk for leukemia research at the ballpark where he was once an Angel and remains an angel. "The Lord wasn't ready for you," Rhonda tells Rod. "You're needed here."
"I was dead," says Carew, who is working to qualify for a heart transplant, "and they brought me back to life."
To read more on Rod Carew's story, go to SI.com/carew
DAMIAN STROHMEYER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (RUSHIN)
KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT/USA TODAY SPORTS (CAREW)