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The Canal Maybe, but Panama Will Never Reclaim Rod Carew, the Best Hitter in Baseball

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Sometimes,” Rod Carew muses, “I sit and think, ‘Gosh, here I am a little black kid from Panama and I’ve accomplished all this.’ I wonder if it’s a dream—if the clock is going to turn back and I’ll be back in Panama…”

That is certainly the fervent wish of every pitcher in the American League. Carew, the soft-spoken 31-year-old first baseman for the Minnesota Twins, is the best hitter in baseball, a five-time league batting champion on his way to a sixth title this year. Yet his most remarkable achievement of the season has been to withstand the relentless pressure of approaching the first .400 batting average in the major leagues since Ted Williams’ .406 in 1941. Carew was soaring over .400 as late as mid-July until a back injury caused him to “slump” to the .370s—still 40 points above his closest rival.

“I was followed everywhere,” Carew observes of the summer-long hounding by reporters and fans. “I’ve had to stay out of my hotel room and away from the dugout. I was going to put a sign on my chest saying, ‘I’m not even thinking about hitting .400. If it happens it happens.’ ” (“The only way he can hit .400 now is to bunt more,” says Minnesota coach Tony Oliva. “But we need doubles and triples, so he’s not bunting. He plays for the ball club, never just for himself.”)

What’s kept Rod from boiling over this summer is knowing that he’s less a martyr than a mensch to his American wife, Marilynn, and her Jewish family. “Black, white? Eh? What’s that?” cracks Marilynn, 32, in her best Rhoda Morgenstern accent. “We’re just two people. He throws his shorts on the floor. I squeeze the toothpaste tube in the center. We’ll live happily ever after.”

Rod is Episcopalian, though Marilynn giggles, “The media got him converted [to Judaism]. One Canadian paper even had him circumcised for it. If they only knew.” (The operation four years ago was for a persistent infection.) Whatever his religious inclinations, Carew is comfortably at home in suburban Golden Valley with bagels, Manischewitz wine and corned beef, often prepared by his live-in mother-in-law, Selma Levy. His daughters, Charryse, 3, and Stephanie, 2, will be raised Jewish, as will a third child due Nov. 21 at 8 a.m. (by cesarean section). “It’s Michael if it’s a boy, Michele if it’s a girl, which it probably will be,” Marilynn jokes, elbowing Rod. “Strike three and you’re out, buddy.”

Their father was born unexpectedly on a commuter train in Panama. “His mother was on her way to a hospital,” Marilynn explains, “when Rodney decided he couldn’t wait.” Separated from her husband, Olga Carew emigrated to New York when Rod was a teenager, and he and his four siblings eventually followed. (Carew loyally retains Panamanian citizenship.) After attending New York’s George Washington H.S. (alma mater of Henry Kissinger and Tiny Tim), Rod was spotted by a Minnesota scout in 1963 spraying baseballs all over a sandlot near Yankee Stadium. He was offered a tryout and signed for a $5,000 bonus. (He’s now up to the $175,000 bracket, loyally making far less in endorsement-poor Minnesota than he might in New York or L.A.)

Carew’s life changed dramatically after he met Marilynn, a dental assistant, nine years ago in a Minneapolis bar. (“I’d never given my phone number to anyone before,” she recalls.) Rod has not batted under .300 since and, according to Oliva, a longtime roommate, “used to be real moody, but is a different person now. He was lucky to marry Marilynn [in 1970].” Carew himself admits, “She’s really settled me down.” Winner of the Roberto Clemente Award last year for contributions to baseball, he makes frequent unpublicized visits to nearby hospitals and the Mayo Clinic to see young patients. “I think I have a responsibility to do what I can,” he explains.

Lithe, fast and blessed with whipcord wrists, Rod will be trying again next season for .400. “If anyone can do it, he can,” says Oliva. Beyond that, Carew speculates about making TV commercials or staying in baseball—”coaching, but not managing.” He remains typically cautious about the future. After all, he jokes, “I’m just your average superstar.”