FORT MYERS, Fla. — Every morning here Rod Carew pulls away from the hotel the Minnesota Twins put him up in, leaves wife Rhonda and cat Taz, bound for work. He drives the same route, the one that takes him by Tony Oliva’s place, timing it up so Tony is getting to the curb just as Rod eases to a stop. Every morning Tony waves, just in case, and smiles, of course.
Together, they cover the final few miles to the Twins spring training camp, park near the front door, say hello to the security guard, then walk to the clubhouse, where they will have their first meaningful conversation of the day.
Eat breakfast first? Or change into their uniforms first?
On Friday morning, they walked to the food room wearing their uniforms — gray-blue hoodies over home white pants, shoulder to shoulder.
Oliva is 80. After amassing three batting titles, 1,917 hits, 220 of those home runs, and a .304 career average, he has been retired for 43 years.
Carew is 73. He won seven batting titles, had 3,053 hits, was an MVP once and went to the Hall of Fame. He has been retired for 34.
For 11 years they were teammates with the Twins and roommates on the road. Rod calls Tony, “Roomie,” still, 31 years after Rod fell asleep most nights to the sound of Tony playing a tape recorder back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, muttering in between playings.
“He speak English from the beginning,” Tony said about Rod, who’d moved from Panama to New York in his teens. “I don’t have it natural. Some of the guys here today they come to me and say, ‘Hey, man, you don’t speak the English. Your English is slow.’ I say, ‘Your English is so good I can understand.’ All these minor leaguers, they have a school. I don’t have no school.”
“And we had bologna and sausages every day,” Rod said.
“A little bologna sandwich,” said Tony, who’d been raised in Cuba. “Remember? One piece of bologna, one piece of cheese, one apple and one milk?”
“So he would stay up all night, he’s got this tape recorder,” Rod said. “And every night you’d hear him listen to his tape recorder and repeating his English, trying to learn to speak it better. I mean every single night.”
“And he still can’t speak it!” Rod shouted.
Tony laughed so hard the aluminum bench shook beneath the both of them.
“I worked so hard!” he protested. “This is what I tell the people. I worked very hard, but I have a problem.”
“You know when he didn’t have a problem?” Rod said. “When it came to contract time.
“My English come out so good!” Tony said.
They’d raised each other those years, in the ’60s when in some towns they’d stay separate from their white teammates, on the field where they considered themselves similar — though not identical — hitters, through All-Star seasons and growing families, finally through retirement and middle age and sickness and health and on Friday afternoon on an aluminum bench on a back field watching young men take batting practice. Over a typical day, you could tie a 6-foot rope to their belt loops and always have a foot of slack, and it’s been going on like this for as long as most can remember. Two springs ago, when Rod was recovering from heart and kidney transplants, and Tony was left to himself, he said, “It was like my first year here in America. Like a loose dog, a little dog, a little puppy. But, we understand, he was in the right place. Getting ready.”
They are, they agreed, like brothers, or whatever it is that is thicker than blood. Their wives, Rhonda and Gordette, are like sisters. Rod calls Tony “AM-FM,” he said, “Like the radio. Because this guy can talk. I mean, anybody he sees, he’s gonna talk to. Anybody.” And Tony gets confused for Rod.
“Now he’s in trouble too,” Tony said. “Or I’m in trouble. Because a lot of people think I am Rod Carew. I was in the hotel …”
“I tell ’em I’m better looking,” Rod said.
“No, in the hotel,” Tony said, “there was this young lady with a mama and papa, they said they’d been coming here for 40 years, first in Orlando and now here. I saw the girls, they’re all, ‘Rodney! Rodney!’ to me!”
“At my hotel,” Rod said. “He came to drop something off.”
“Rodney! Rodney!” Tony said.
Rod waved him away.
“I say I’m not Rodney, I’m his brother,” Tony said. “She said, ‘No, you’re Rodney! Rodney! I say, OK, you go get some coffee for me, I’ll tell you who I am. I went and got some coffee and the coffee was cold. So I gave the cup to her and said you go and get some coffee for me. I get the hot coffee and say, ‘I’m no Rodney. I’m Tony.’”
They’d been transposed before, in the days prior to Rod signing his first professional contract. He was a local kid, from nearby Washington Heights in New York, eager to get out. Tony was on his way to becoming the American League’s rookie of the year.
“I met him, the Twins were in New York,” Rod said. “First time I’d been in Yankee Stadium. I played outside Yankee Stadium when they had the fields there. So they invited me to work out and couldn’t find a uniform for me. But they gave me his uniform.”
“I was little,” Tony said.
“‘Tony Oliva!’ they called,” Rod said. “‘Tony Oliva!’ I’m not Tony. I was going to be signed by them. I was hitting balls in the seats. They rushed me out of the batting cage. Then when I made the club, they had roommates in those days and we just hooked up.”
“The first thing I said to him when he come out and spend time here, I remember Brooks Robinson,” Tony said. “Brooks Robinson was playing third base. And he [Carew] was hitting. He pretended to bunt. I said, ‘Hey, don’t bunt to that guy. He’s the best in the business. The best in the business.’ He said, ‘If I bunt good, he won’t throw me out.’ And you know what, he was right. People don’t understand how much he worked at that. How much he practiced. Practice, practice, practice. He become the best.”
And they became inseparable. On the road, they’d wake up and find a place to eat. Some days they’d go see a movie. They’d walked the streets, looking for something interesting to kill the time. Then they’d return to the hotel to dress for the ballpark, often in a coat and tie, as was the standard.
“In those days,” Tony said, “we have to dress.”
“He taught me to tie my first tie,” Rod said.
“I did it,” Tony said.
“He tied it for me, the first time, and I never took the knot out,” Rod said. “I always kept it, pulled it off, hung it up, so I could just put it on. We had to wear ties and jackets all the time.”
“You’re a big leaguer,” Tony said. “It’s not usual to go to the ballpark dirty. Why you want to go to the ballpark, where you don’t have to do nothing? You don’t have to go work on the farm or anything like that. You should go clean. They say if you go clean to work you make at least $10,000 more a year.”
Rod curled his lip, amused. These are, in some ways, those days again. The men move slower. Their work is in the quiet conversations they have with hitters. Rod’s conversations are quieter. “Hey, roomie,” Rod says, and they head off to the cages, or a back field, or to the clubhouse for lunch, unless Tony gets caught up talking to a fan or a young player or a groundskeeper, and then Rod stands to the side, watching.
They walk through camp as if in black-and-white, from a generation of players, of men, who knew the game — the same game — differently. Time and gravity tug gently on them both, and they don’t always seem to mind. Rod, whose health issues were severe, thanks God every morning “for this beautiful day.” And then he goes to pick up his best friend.
“You want me to say that first?” Tony said.
“Yeah,” Rod said, “you go ahead.”
“Because when you go first you get in trouble,” Tony said.
“Uh-huh,” Rod said.
“For me and Rod,” Tony said, “the friendship survives because we never changed. We are more like brothers. I speak more with Rod than I do my brother. My brother lives in Minneapolis. I call Cuba and speak with my brothers. I like to speak to my family, in the good times and the bad times. Me and Rod, we’ve been brothers, friends, for over 50 years. And we’ve been the same in the good times and the bad times. Not just the good times. It’s both ways. I’d say I have four or five people like that. The good times and the bad times, it’s very important.”
“Well,” Rod said, “I think we know each other. As people, we carry ourselves with respect. And we love each other. You know, this is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and known for all these years, and still feel the same way about him. No disagreements. No nothing. We’re family. I wish more people could have the same kind of relationship that we have had.”
With that, they stood. They’d go rest their elbows on the batting cage, see if they couldn’t help some, then watch a baseball game, then get in the car and go home. Then they’d do it all again tomorrow.
“C’mon, roomie,” Rod said.
“I’m comin’,” Tony said.
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