If you, like me, are under the age of about 50, you probably know Rod Carew as the guy from the history books, who shows up for Twins Fest and Spring Training. Even for those who can recite his accomplishments, his new book, One Tough Out: Fighting Off Life’s Curveballs, [Amazon Link] pours in a layer of humanity that stat lines can never provide.
More than anything, Carew and his co-author Jaime Aron capture the arc of Rod Carew the person, of which Rod Carew the baseball player is but a small component. It took time, good friends, and tragedy for him to overcome the scars of a poor Panamanian boy who literally waited for his father to choose which weapon to beat him with at night.
Yeah, that’s dark. and that darkness was a part of Carew for a long time, but his story is now told with grace, and without a hint of bitterness. Its simply a tale of battling off life’s challenges, and becoming a better man in the process. The way he manages to tell the first part of the story has the effect of humanizing a legend, and does a good job of explaining some of the negatives he was known for in his playing career. He also credits the influence of the other two members of the Trinity of early Twins—the late Harmon Killebrew, and Tony Oliva. Both were veterans by the time Carew made it to the big leagues, and both men looked out for, cared for, and made an outsized impression on the often-hotheaded second baseman.
Calvin Griffith is another subject that Carew handles with grace. While Griffith was an early supporter of Carew, their relationship, which was already damaged by Griffith’s skinflint nature, was irreparably changed by Griffiths’ infamous racist speech in Waseca, which resulted in Carew never again playing in a Twins uniform. I was surprised at the way that Griffith was portrayed in the book, but he is largely a sympathetic figure, despite his well-known shortcomings. Carew’s long and illustrious playing career doesn’t even cover a third of the story here, and quite frankly, it shouldn’t. We all have baseball-reference to tell us that story. Parts two and three of the book are given equal importance.
Due to his psychological scars, hotheadedness, and pride, Carew the ballplayer could be seen in almost an anti-hero role. As opposed to genuine good-naturedness of Killebrew, and easy-going friendliness of Oliva, Carew was known to be much less approachable—not a bad person, just a broken one. Part two of the book brings us to the tragic moment that changed him forever, for the better, and part three becomes a redemption arc.
Carew’s daughter, Michelle, was diagnosed with Leukemia at 17 years old. That’s a tough sentence. Yet, more than anything, Michelle may have driven Carew to save many, many more lives. At her behest, Carew got involved as the public face of bone marrow donation—a public role he had been loath to accept during his playing career, when he shunned reporters. This is start of the redemption. Through the tragedy of losing his daughter, among other events, Carew learns to let go of the past, to embrace his role in the world, and to be a better person.
Part three of the book primarily focuses on something most Twins fans will be familiar with—Carew’s heart disease, transplant, and his Heart of 29 foundation. It also tells a redemption story for Carew, in which he gains a close-knit family, a purpose, and a drive to make every day meaningful. The story of Konrad Reuland, who had once considered meeting Rod Carew the greatest that could happen to him as an 11-year old, providing Carew’s heart transplant is rather well known, yet still touching, and covered in detail. Of course, the Heart of 29 Foundation has saved many lives as well through encouraging heart screenings.
The story of Carew’s life is bookended by the pictures next to his bed. As a child, they were the baseball cards of Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams. Now, they are a very different kind of heroes. Every day he says good morning to Michelle and Konrad.