The Game of His Life
FOR ALL HIS SUCCESS ON THE baseball field, Hall of Famer Rod Carew has known his share of personal anguish. As a boy, he was frequently beaten by his father and later received death threats prompted by his interracial romance. But nothing could prepare Carew, 50, now a hitting coach for the California Angels, for his latest challenge: his daughter Michelle’s struggle to beat a rare and aggressive form of leukemia. “Nothing can compare to what she’s going through,” says Carew.
In early September, Michelle, 18, a gregarious recent graduate of Canyon High School in Anaheim Hills, Calif., complained of headaches, a stuffy nose and neck pain. Within days doctors informed Rod and his wife, Marilynn, 50, that Michelle had acute nonlympho-cytic leukemia. “All of us were numb,” says Marilynn. “I was panicking.” Michelle’s health deteriorated rapidly—she nearly went blind as a result of a rare unrelated optic nerve problem, then came close to dying when a bacterial infection put her into shock.
Now, after four rounds of chemotherapy, her leukemia is in remission. Yet there is a 50 percent chance that Michelle will need a bone-marrow transplant within four months if the disease returns. Unfortunately neither her parents nor her two sisters—S Charryse, 22, a senior at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and Stephanie, 20, a junior at UCLA—share her tissue type. Worse, there is a lack of diversity in the donor pool—fewer than 5 percent of the 1.8 million donors in the National Marrow Donor Program are black. Since Michelle is the product of an interracial marriage—her father is of West Indian and Panamanian descent, and her mother is of Russian-Jewish heritage—the odds are very slim (less than 10 percent) that she will find a match.
The family is battling those odds by launching a drive to recruit minority donors. That is typical of the fighting spirit that Carew himself developed early growing up in Panama. He was a sickly kid who from age 8 was thrashed regularly by his father, Erik. At 12, he was such a talented ballplayer that he joined a men’s league, often batting against his father, who whipped him with a belt when he got a hit. Still, Rod was eager to play. “I could accept the punishment,” he says. “I figured the bruises would wear off.”
They did. By age 15, Carew was in New York City with his family, playing sandlot ball. After a stint in the minor leagues, he joined the Minnesota Twins in 1967, and by 1986, when he retired after 12 years with the Twins and seven with the Angels, he had won seven American League batting titles and made the All-Star team 18 times.
One evening in 1968, Carew walked into a Minneapolis bar where Marilynn Levy, a vivacious dental assistant, was celebrating her 22nd birthday. Marilynn knew nothing about baseball and had no idea who Carew was. “I thought he was cocky, arrogant,” she says. Carew puts a different spin on it. “It was charisma,” he insists with a laugh.
At first they dated furtively, since Marilynn feared her Jewish parents might disapprove of her seeing a black man. Eventually, Carew met the entire Levy family at their 1970 Passover seder. He hated the gefilte fish but loved the Levys; they were smitten too. He has never formally converted to Judaism though he and Marilynn, who wed in 1970, made sure their girls attended Hebrew school. But mainly Carew played ball, which meant long trips away from home. “I didn’t get to see them grow up,” he says. “I missed a lot, being on the road.”
Now his priorities have changed. For much of the two months that Michelle, who had just started Cypress College in Cypress, Calif., has been in the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, Marilynn has stayed at her side, while Rod has become “Mr. Mom,” he says, having shuttled from hospital to home to the ballpark. Although Michelle is now too vulnerable to infection to leave her hospital room, she remains upbeat, speaking longingly of one day going on a road trip with her friends. She also looks forward, she says, to a first: “I want to watch it snow.” Her physician Dr. Mitchell Cairo says that if remission continues and her strength increases, treatment other than a bone-marrow transplant might suffice. A decision will be made by year’s end.
Carew is taking no chances. In early November he kicked off his campaign to recruit minority donors at Planet Hollywood in Santa Ana, Calif., seven Angel teammates at his side. “When we found out what happened to Michelle,” says pitcher Mark Langston, “it really affected our club.” Carew and his teammates signed autographs for many of the 671 volunteers who showed up to take blood tests identifying genetic types. “Whichever way it goes with [Michelle],” he vows, “I don’t intend to stop doing this until enough minorities are registered.” Adds Marilynn: “This is now our mission. We’re fighters.”
MICHAEL ARKUSH in Anaheim