On April 3, the fourth night of the new baseball season, California Angels hitting coach Rod Carew was running through his pregame routine with a blissful sense of purpose. He oversaw batting practice. Reviewed that night's opposing pitchers with his hitters. Suddenly an Angels staffer approached Carew and gently said an urgent call awaited him. Carew soon was making the 10-minute drive from Anaheim Stadium to Children's Hospital of Orange County with his heart clenched in fear. Again.
Six months have passed since 18-year-old Michelle, the youngest of Rod and Marilynn Carew's three daughters, was diagnosed with acute nonlymphocytic leukemia. Each month has brought life-threatening scares. During his very public fight to save Michelle's life, the world has become acquainted with the human side of Rod Carew—the Carew Nobody Knew during his stoic reign as baseball's most coolly efficient hitting machine.
From the day Michelle entered the hospital last Sept. 11, the Carews have known that she needed a lifesaving bone marrow transplant. Because of Michelle's genetic background—Rod is black with West Indian and Panamanian roots, and Marilynn is white and of Russian-Jewish heritage—doctors originally said Michelle's chances of getting a donor match would be like "finding a needle in a haystack."
But Rod wouldn't sit back and accept that. "You see other parents in the hallway," he says. "You go into their kid's room, talk to the kids, try to perk them up, whatever. Sometimes when you come back the next day, there's just an empty bed. It's devastating. One thing Michelle told me: if you do something, don't just do it for me.' "
So, taking advantage of his Hall of Fame stature, he began calling reporters, inviting TV crews to her ward and appearing at marrow donor drives. Since then, the National Marrow Donor Program has experienced a threefold increase in calls to its 1-800-MARROW2 hot line. Enrollment in the program has leaped by 277,635, and—lo and behold—when a daily computer-bank search of donors was run in mid-March, several potential matches for Michelle were found.
The irony was that her condition by then had worsened and doctors opted for an umbilical cord blood transplant that became available at about the same time. The procedure had been used only about 200 times worldwide, but data suggested that the newer treatment carried a lower risk of cell graft rejection—a vital consideration, since Michelle has had temporary failure of all of her major organs. And has had 14 operations. And has fought off two cases of life-threatening septic shock. To Rod, the choice of two treatment options after months of having none is proof "that miracles can happen."
To baseball people who know Carew, the sight of him inviting the public into his life at such a raw-nerved time is something many never expected to see. It wasn't so much that Carew, a confessed loner, didn't need other people before. It was just that people too often disappointed him. Asked what kind of parent he wanted to be, Carew—who was abused as a child—quickly answers, "Special. Just special. I wanted my daughters to know they could always come to Daddy and, no matter how old they were, could always sit on my lap and hug me and talk to me. They'd always be Daddy's little girl."
Then he kept his vow. The night he got his 3,000th hit, it was seven-year-old Michelle who sat with Rod at his postgame press conference. When Michelle collapsed while doing some homework on her home computer last September, the event that led to the diagnosis of her leukemia, it was Rod who tenderly carried her to bed, figuring she was suffering from fatigue. After Michelle's heart flatlined for about a minute on Nov. 14—the first time she nearly died—she locked on Rod's eyes and said, "Daddy, I'm fighting. I'm fighting, Daddy."
The day Carew was summoned from the stadium, Michelle was again fighting kidney failure. By the middle of last week, she was back on a respirator. Last Saturday, Rod, who's on a leave of absence from the Angels, said, "We thought we were going to lose her on Wednesday." At week's end, it was still too early to tell if the cord blood transplant would work.
Still, the transplant was Michelle's best hope. On March 22, her family gathered round her bedside to watch the new blood cells coursing through an IV tube and into her arm. "I had the exact same sensation then as when I saw her in the delivery room for the first time," says Rod. "As I watched those new blood cells going into her, I kept thinking, Maybe I'm watching my daughter being reborn. Maybe today's the day she'll be reborn, good as new, all over again."