Rod Carew: Michelangelo on the Diamond

From time to time, we are graced with a story from Luis Rodríguez Mayoral, a close friend of Roberto Clemente’s and another pioneer from Puerto Rico. From sports writing to broadcasting to becoming one of the first Latinos to work in the front office, Rodríguez Mayoral is one of the game’s trailblazers.

Watching a Rod Carew at-bat was like watching an artist at work. Carew was a true master, able to relax and concentrate simultaneously at the plate while taking fluid swings from a crouched stance. Rather than a chisel or a brush, he wielded a bat to create beautiful art.

Roberto Clemente was the first Latino to win multiple batting titles. But Carew took hitting to another level. He was the Michelangelo of his time, reaching the pinnacle of his sport during a 19-year career.

He was voted Rookie of the Year after his debut with the Minnesota Twins in 1967. Hit .300 for 15 straight seasons. Earned 18 All-Star selections. Won seven batting crowns. And was voted American League MVP in 1977.

He averaged .328, better than any Latino in major league history. And totaled 3,053 hits, the second Latino after Clemente to reach this exclusive club.

But in my eyes, Carew is much more than the sum of his numbers. His art and humanity are to be distilled and appreciated, not quantified.

From the Canal Zone to New York

Born on a train in Gatún, Panama Canal Zone, on Monday, Oct. 1, 1945, Carew was named after Dr. Rodney Cline, the man who helped deliver him that day.

Rod had a difficult upbringing, as he was frequently ill with rheumatic fever. His father, Eric, a painter by trade, proved to be uncaring.

“Since my father didn’t treat me well, on many occasions I would leave our house and climb a tree nearby to get away from him,” Carew told me. “And speaking of that, I never forget the small park where I played as a kid or the joy I felt when listening to Buck Canel broadcasting Major League Baseball games in Spanish on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports.

“Since those years, growing up in Gamboa (a Canal Zone township for employees of the Panama Canal), my idol was Jackie Robinson. I always knew I wanted to be a ballplayer like him,” Carew added.

In search of a better life, his mom, a respectable and determined woman named Olga Scott, left her husband behind and immigrated to New York City, where Rod joined her in 1962.

In Panama, Carew played Little League baseball. But in New York, he focused on school and work, staying after class to improve his English and his grades.

Bronx Cavaliers

Carew was a messenger and bagboy at a store in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan while he attended George Washington High School — where Manny Ramírez would later study. It was also the alma mater of luminaries such as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, actor and singer Harry Belafonte, and merengue queen Milly Quezada.

But thanks to his good friend Ozzie Álvarez, Carew played sandlot ball and took part in the tough Hispanic leagues, mainly on the team Álvarez coached, the Bronx Cavaliers, also known as the New York Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers played in Macombs Dam Park, in the shadow of old Yankee Stadium. You could say that Carew was “discovered” by Monroe Katz, a Minnesota Twins associate scout whose son played for the Cavaliers. On Katz’s recommendation, legendary Twins scout Herb Stein signed Carew on June 24, 1964.

Carew was known for his strong, quick wrists and bat control. He debuted with the Twins on April 11, 1967. Coincidently, fellow Panamanians Allan Lewis and Ramon Webster made their debuts with the Kansas City Athletics that same day.

On May 20, 1970, Carew became the first Latin American in MLB history to hit for the cycle — single, double, triple and home run — in a game against Kansas City.

Our paths crossed around that time, at Fenway Park, and ever since, we have maintained a great affinity for each other. We share two common denominators — baseball and human values.

Roberto Clemente

Like me, Carew deeply admired Clemente. Having known The Great One myself, I’m certain that Clemente valued the fact that Rod was bilingual and bicultural, a citizen of two countries. And like Clemente, Carew served in the U.S. Marine Corps.

“My first encounter with Clemente was at the 1968 All-Star Game in Houston,” Carew said. “He told me in such a nice and firm manner to look out for young Latino players in order to help them.”

Carew must have listened, because he went on to receive the Roberto Clemente Award in 1977, the same year he was voted MVP.

Speaking of human values, prior to a game in Arlington, Texas, sometime in the mid-1990s, we were chatting close to the batting cage when he saw a former player some 50 feet away.

With a quizzical look, Carew momentarily stared at him.

“I was young in the early 1970s, but I will never forget how that man and his teammates verbally abused me, repeatedly, without pity,” Carew said. “It hurt, but I kept my cool, for I knew I was a good player and a good person. I ignored them, but the interesting thing is that with time, he kind of started kissing up to me. I gave it all to God.”

Days after the 1989 All-Star Game in Anaheim, I visited Carew in his home close to The Big A, the Angels’ ballpark. Reminiscing, he brought up the names of several managers he played for, among them Sam Mele, Cal Ermer, Bill Rigney and Billy Martin at Minnesota, plus Gene Mauch with both teams.

Surprisingly, Martin, the temperamental and controversial skipper who once challenged Reggie Jackson to a fight, was his favorite.

“He was my good friend. He advised me in so many ways, and was like a father to me,” Carew said.

‘I died, but paramedics brought me back to life’

On September 20, 2015, while playing golf alone in Corona, Calif., Rod had a massive heart attack, putting a scare into all of us.

I spoke to him about it a few months ago. He was very open about his experience.

“My heart started burning and my hands got soggy,” Carew said. “Then I blacked out. I died but paramedics brought me back to life. My wife, Rhonda, my son, Devon, as well as family members and friends have taken care of me.”

Rod received a new heart and kidney in December of 2016, thanks to former Baltimore Ravens tight end Konrad Reuland, who had died three days earlier after suffering a brain aneurysm. Unbeknownst to Rod at the time, he had once met Reuland, who attended the same middle school as Rod’s children.

During that conversation, Rod expressed his love for Panama, the United States and Major League Baseball for providing the perfect setting to make a career in the game.

“I have always wanted to be a perennial example for my people in Panama, specifically the youth of my homeland,” he said.

Panamanian national hero

Panama considers Rod a national hero and duly honored him by renaming Panama City’s Stadium in his honor in 2004. The Panamanian government had previously bestowed upon him the Order of Vasco Núñez de Balboa for diplomatic and international contributions on behalf of his country, in 1975.

These honors rank up there with his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 1991.

These days, Rod makes personal appearances around the country and, along with his wife, is very active with the American Heart Association and the Heart 29 Movement, raising awareness about heart disease.

Today, away from the game, Carew continues to influence people and give back by being a stellar icon. He walks through life with great humility. My impression of him — one that I’ve had from the beginning and have shared with numerous people — is that of a very enlightened and peaceful soul. He is my Michelangelo.

Featured Image: Bettmann

Inset Image 1: Luis Rodríguez Mayoral

Inset Image 2: Brace Hemmelgarn / Getty Images Sport