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OC Register: Alexander: Angels legend Rod Carew peels back the curtain

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There was a time in his life, during his incomparable baseball career, when Rod Carew wasn’t particularly keen on revealing a lot about his thoughts or feelings, especially with the writers who covered baseball on a day-to-day basis.

“It’s funny,” he was saying the other day in a phone conversation. “I didn’t talk to the print media much. But the TV, radio (interviewers), I always spoke to those guys because, you know, you tape a session with them, at least they can come back and say, ‘Hey, this is what you said.’ Print media was different. You tell them one thing. The next day, they’d change it to what they wanted it to be, so I kind of backed away after I got burned a couple of times.”

Very few of us are, or were, like that. But in the give and take of the baseball season, with writers and players in close proximity for six months – under normal circumstances, anyway – sometimes we do tend to rub each other the wrong way.

I’m just glad Carew’s not only talking to us again, but that he has pulled back the curtain on a pretty remarkable life.

Carew’s autobiography is “One Tough Out: Fighting Off Life’s Curveballs,” written with Jaime Aron. It was released May 12, and he has pulled no punches.

He details a life that began when he was born on a segregated train in Panama, followed by a childhood marred by an abusive father. Carew developed an aptitude for baseball that, after his mother and siblings had migrated to New York, got him scouted and signed by the Minnesota Twins – signed right under the Yankees’ noses, in fact.

That led to a Hall of Fame career that included seven batting championships, 3,053 career hits, a career .328 batting average, a lifetime .393 on-base percentage (leading the league four times in that category) and 17 steals of home during 12 seasons with Minnesota and seven with the Angels.

But the back of the book is even more compelling. Carew, now 74, talks about the leukemia that took the life of his daughter Michelle in 1996, at age 18, and the promise he made to his daughter that he would open up, in order to be a spokesman for the cause of pediatric cancer research. He discusses the stresses that ultimately ended his first marriage; the love and support of his current wife, Rhonda; the heart attack in September of 2015 that he survived and the heart and kidney transplants, in December of 2016, that saved his life; and the bonds created between families because the heart that went into Carew came from former NFL player Konrad Reuland, who had died of a brain aneurysm.

In fact, if you only get one thing out of his book, or even this column, it should be this: Get a heart checkup. If there’s something awry, get it fixed.

“You know, when I first came back I went back to spring training,” said Carew, who is a springtime hitting coach for the Twins. “The guys had a welcome for me and I had a big chat with the coaches. And I told them the story of what I went through, and if they have any relatives or friends that they need to talk to, that they should.

“Well, one guy didn’t and got a phone call the next morning that his younger brother died from a heart attack.”

I asked him if it took some effort to reach the point where he could just go ahead and put everything out there in print, or if he’d already gotten to that point.

“I’m to that point now where I try not to let it affect me,” he said. “I feel a little bit more comfortable, but at least people know who I am, what I am, where I came from, what I went through, you know?”

Michelle encouraged him to be more outgoing. He recalled a conversation they had at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, during the latter stages of her fight with leukemia.

“She knew that I didn’t talk to the press a lot,” he said. “And so she says, ‘Dad, you know, I know this might be hard for you, but I want you to spread your wings a little bit. That’s what she said to me. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ (She said) ‘I want you to open up, because all of us need your help. Not just me, all of us. You saw the kids out in the hallway with their poles, kicking soccer balls, playing hockey and all that stuff. They all need help also. So I’d like you to start talking to the press. You know, helping us. Helping all those kids.’

“So I said OK. I made a promise to her that until I leave this earth, I will always be on call for things like that, especially for children. And I still do it.”

He had, and has, a strong platform from which to talk. Yet there is one absolute area of expertise in which you wonder if the people who should be listening are actually doing so. Even 3,053 career hits and an impeccable ability to control the bat in his playing days may not have that much currency in the modern grip-it-and-rip-it game.

When he goes to spring training to work with the Twins’ hitters, he teams with Torii Hunter, another former Twin and Angel. Torii encourages the young hitters to pay attention.

Do they listen?

“You know, I don’t think so,” Carew said. “I don’t think they do at all, because I have to go to them. They don’t come to me. And sometimes I get so frustrated that I just wonder, why am I here if you’re not asking questions?”

Would Rod Carew in his prime have prospered in today’s game? He was seeking information well before today’s computer printouts and three-ring binders in the dugout, and in fact charted each at-bat against every pitcher he faced in a pocket notebook he kept in the dugout.

I know this much: No one would be shifting against him.

“When I first came up, I could run and I could hit, and I used the whole field to hit,” he said. “And my job was to get on base and try and score runs. I could have hit more home runs than I did in the big leagues (92). But I had disciplined myself so much to maintaining what I had because it had brought me success. So why do I want to change everything and now find myself scuffling to try to hit the ball out of the ballpark?”

He noted that the march back to the dugout after striking out was “the longest walk.” The closest he came to triple figures in strikeouts was his rookie year in 1967, when he fanned 91 times in 137 games. Over the last 13 years of his career, he struck out as many as 60 times once.

Would you want someone with those skills in your batting order? To me, it’s a silly question.

But what he’s doing now – raising awareness for heart health, pediatric cancer research and organ donation – puts him in the middle of another awfully important lineup.

“We all go through these things in life no matter who we are,” he said. “Hopefully, I can help someone. It’s always about helping, you know?”

It is.


@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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