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T.J. Simers

Rod Carew, the great hitter, is going to bat for others

Fourteen years after losing his daughter to leukemia, the Hall of Fame member raises funds for pediatric cancer research. Explaining his transition from standoffish to obliging, he says: 'I grew up.'

February 23, 2010|T.J. Simers

It was just another promotional news conference, this one for an All-Star game in Angel Stadium months from now, maybe three or four media types showing up.

But this is why this job is so cool at times, a morning to remember after catching up with Rod Carew.

Never really knew the guy until the last few years. I tried interviewing him as a player and Gary Matthews Jr. would prove to be more approachable.

"I grew up," says Carew in explaining the transition from being so standoffish to so obliging.

Later I met him at a golf tournament, then another and later a dinner for friends of his. He was quiet, but friendly.

"I mellowed," he explains.

Monday morning I wish they had hooked him to a microphone to be heard -- funny, opinionated and, more than anything, inspirational.

He still loves the game, one he mastered without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs, reflecting on memories of being brushed back by both Drysdale and Koufax the same day, a great life overall, he says, which also includes the death of his 18-year-old daughter, Michelle.

"I still talk to her when I'm in my car," Carew says after doing his duty and promoting the All-Star fan fest in the Anaheim Convention Center this July. "I just tell her, I know you're having a good time and have made a lot of friends, because she never met someone she didn't like. I've told her I'm going to see her, and just keep smiling."

Michelle died after a seven-month battle with leukemia and a failed search for a bone marrow match 14 years ago this April.

"[Every April] I light a candle and say a prayer," he says. "My daughter's girlfriend was killed in an accident, her dad is a firefighter and I went over and spoke to him. He asked if it was going to get any easier, and I said, 'It's not going to get any easier because every time you turn around -- you will see something about this little girl you raised and there's always going to be a reminder.' "

Sometimes those reminders are painful -- but funny as well. "She used to collect baseball cards," Carew says. "She didn't want my [autograph], but she had Griffey, Ripken and Canseco."

Carew still has Canseco's autograph, and offers no apology. "I went in her room when she passed and took a lot of the cards," he says. "It's not for what Canseco did, but because she watched this player she really liked."

The bond between father and daughter remains: Carew, the Hall of Fame player with an extraordinary ability to hit the ball, also raises funds for pediatric cancer research.

"My daughter told me, 'Daddy, if I don't make it, I don't want you to stop helping these other kids.' So that's where I've been able to go on. I tell people, and I really believe this, I didn't lose a daughter -- I gained so many other kids.

"Each time I see something good happen I look upstairs and say, 'Thanks, Pish,' because that was my pet name for her. I don't want to let her down."

Every week Carew goes shopping for the National Enquirer and the Star -- never missing a week.

"If I'm overseas, I make sure someone buys them for me," he says. "We used to lie in bed together and do the crosswords; she loved to do the crosswords.

"When I was 11, I spent eight months in the hospital with rheumatic fever and almost died. And I always thank my friend upstairs. So I feel He kept me going and took her. I'm being honest, I never asked why. He just wanted her; He gave her to me for 17 years."

This past weekend, as he does many weekends, he drives around, and stops when he spots youngsters playing baseball. He says it's just the best.

"I went to four or five fields Sunday just to watch kids practice," he says. "I was watching this one team practicing sloppily, so I went out and told them that's how they're going to play."

I've seen the stern Carew. He says he was burned in interviews early in his career and thus not always cooperative with those he did not know.

On the field, it didn't seem to matter who was pitching him the ball, playing 19 seasons and making the All-Star team 18 times, while posting a .328 career batting average.

As a minor leaguer still trying to prove himself, he faced Don Drysdale in a spring training game, Drysdale relieved in the third by Sandy Koufax.

"I swung late on a fastball and lined a foul down the line off Drysdale; the next two pitches were at my ribs," Carew says. "Sandy came in and his first pitch was under my chin. I guess they were just trying to get me ready for the big leagues."

They appear to have done a good job, Carew going into a hitting crouch and making the Hall of Fame on the first ballot after a hit-filled career in Minnesota and Anaheim.

"I didn't have that stance until I faced Nolan Ryan. I think I struck out 29 times against him on that high fastball. I crouched, and when his fastball was down it was much straighter. Then he would yell at me, 'Stand up!' "

And so it went all morning, another appointment calling Carew far too soon, and yet a routine Monday with a great start to the week.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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