Category Archives: Hall of Fame

Tuffy Rhodes: The beginning

On Tuesday, one of Japanese baseball’s all-time greats, Tuffy Rhodes, remained gathering dust in the middle of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame players division voting results, omitted by more than 70 percent of the voters.

I spoke with Rhodes a year ago after Craig Calcattera wrote about Rhodes’ Hall of Fame slog, and Craig’s story sparked a small amount of outrage among Japanese fans. I expected to catch up with him in Phoenix last March and then write the interview but we never connected. Tuffy’s not a hermit, but he moves at his pace.

Here’s the first part of our interview — about how he got to Japan and what changed him. In 13 Japanese seasons, Rhodes’ 464 home runs are 13th most all time. He is 20th in career walks, 24th in runs.

“I’m the true definition of retired. I’m enjoying life,” he said, adding that the Hall of Fame debate doesn’t concern him.

“I try not to worry about things like that, that I don’t have control over. I would love to be in the Hall of Fame there. It would be a great honor. But you know, there are only two or three things in my life that outweigh the joy, the great time and the learning experience and the people I met in Japan. I can’t replace that.”

Rhodes said his parents encouraged everyone in their family to play sports and he played everything. His favorite was basketball, but baseball represented an opportunity the others didn’t.

There was more of an opportunity, a way to take care of my family,” he said. “I was highly drafted (3rd round) by the Houston Astros, and the bonus worked well. Your minor league pay is like $700 a month, and you’ve got to have four or five roommates just to survive.”

“I made the major leagues at 21. I found it was easy to get to the major leagues but the hard thing was to stay. I didn’t work as hard as I should have. I tried to rely on or depend on natural ability when everyone there had ability that was incredible. I learned it the hard way.”

He’s famous for his three-home run Opening Day against Dwight Gooden on April 4, 1994. However, Rhodes was 23 years old and the plan that season was for him to be the Chicago Cubs’ fourth outfielder.

“Glenallen Hill was hurt to start the season,” Rhodes said. “We had Sammy Sosa in right field making $6 million, and Derrick May in left making about $2 million, and Glen was making three or four million. And I was making about $300,000, but Glen got hurt and that opened the door for me. When he got healthy, he just took his job back. The hard thing was I could not make the adjustment to coming off the bench.”

The year before, Rhodes had really bloomed in Triple-A for both the Astros and Royals. His failure with the Cubs in 1994, however, exposed his inability to learn the game and adjust. The Cubs waved him, and he was picked up by the Red Sox. There, Roy Poitevint, who had created a cottage industry of funneling players to Japan, could shop him to a Japanese team.

Rhodes caught the eye of the Kintetsu Buffaloes’ Minoru Ichihara, and the subsequent scene came straight out of the movie “Mr. Baseball,” when the Red Sox gave him the news.

“They said, ‘We’ve got good news and bad news,'” Rhodes said. “I said, ‘What’s the good news?’ He said, ‘We have a team that wants you to play every day.’ I said to myself, ‘Well, hell. There can’t be no bad news.’ He said it was in Japan and showed me the contract they were offering me, I didn’t think twice about it. I just said, ‘Where do I sign?’”

“I didn’t give 120 percent in America, the total commitment to baseball. I told myself, when I get to Japan I’m going to do whatever it takes to play as long as I can. I didn’t think it was going to be 13 years.”

“I got older, and I started developing. I started lifting weights. I never lifted weights in the States. Oh my goodness, no.”

So he entered a world where his willingness to learn and maximize his potential was matched only by the desire of his coaches to teach him their game. The result was some tough love and a lot of magic.

“In Japan, the spring trainings were totally different. It was work, work, work. And they teach you how to play tired. I was going to do whatever it took. I was going to do everything. I wasn’t going to complain about nothing. Was I shocked? Yes. Especially when I had to take an hour of batting practice by myself. My first year, Sasaki kantoku (manager) made me take batting practice for an hour by myself. Unbelievable.”

“Luckily the next day was a day off. I didn’t come out of the room. I didn’t eat dinner that night. I didn’t come out of my room the next day. I was done. But it taught me, how to use my hands and relax in situations when you’re tired. It worked out well.”

Like a lot of players who come to Japan, Rhodes did not start his first season on fire. But the Buffaloes gave him the time to figure things out.

“They were very accommodating each year, one other thing that was very good was that I was on the Kintetsu Buffaloes,” he said. “I wasn’t on the Hanshin Tigers, I wasn’t on the Tokyo Giants or the Chunichi Dragons. I was on a team like the Minnesota Twins or the Cincinnati Reds, so the spotlight wasn’t on our team so much.”

“I hit .240 or .250 until I figured out the baseball here. If I had hit .240 with the Hanshin Tigers or Tokyo Giants, I probably would have had a one-year experience in Japan.”

Were some things harder to get used to?

“The bunt in the first inning, the managers getting on the younger kids hard,” he said. “I’ve seen one of my managers smack one of the rookie players for missing the bunt sign in Tokyo Dome my first year and I could not believe it.”

“At the same time, there was the discipline part. You had no choice not to do it. I’m the kind of guy who needs somebody behind me. I need a personal trainer if I’m going to work out. I need a coach if I’m going to work out. I need a schedule, and I know I’m that type of person, so Japanese baseball was great for me. They taught me how to play chess instead of checkers.”

“They taught me to look for 2-0 curveballs and forkballs, to not always look for a fastball. In America, we look for the fastball and react to the breaking balls. They taught me to look for different pitches in different counts I had one pitcher, he threw 95 miles an hour, but 3-2 he threw me a changeup 95 percent of the time. I knew just because of my books and my notes.”

Japanese Baseball Hall of Popularity: 2020 version

The Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame on Tuesday announced the winners of its annual ballots, and the hall’s reputation as a popularity contest was confirmed for another year.

For the first time since it was created in 2008, the player’s division voters failed to elect anyone as last year’s runner-up, Shingo Takatsu, fell seven votes short of selection. Popular DeNA BayStars manager Alex Ramirez, the only imported player with 2,000 hits shot up the leaderboard to finish second in the ballot with 233 of the 266 votes needed for selection.

Tuffy Rhodes, easily the best player on the player’s division ballot, took a slight step backward. A year ago, he was named on 29.6 percent of the ballots, this year on 28.8 percent.

Ramirez is a deserving candidate and this is not a slur on his reputation, but as a player, he didn’t have as big an impact as Rhodes. Ramirez was a popular player with the Giants, while Rhodes’ time with the Giants was curtailed by injury and marred by an argument with a coach.

HOF Players Division results 2020

NameVotes2020 Pct2019 pctCareer Win Shares
Shingo Takatsu25973.360.6120
Alex Ramirez23365.840.4248
Masahiro Kawai21861.650.7148
Shinya Miyamoto20658.241.2201
Kenjiro Nomura12735.937.2244
Masumi Kuwata12134.231.5191
Hiroki Kokubo10429.432.1311
Tuffy Rhodes10228.829.6320
Tomonori Maeda10228.829.6262
Takuro Ishii8724.624.8299
Atsunori Inaba7220.3NA302
Kenji Jojima6117.215.1294
Takeshi Yamasaki4111.611.3241
Shinji Sasaoka3911.010.5172
So Taguchi349.610.2170
Norihiro Akahoshi329.08.9146
Norihiro Nakamura287.9NA305
Shinjiro Hiyama164.53.2138
Kazuhisa Ishii144.07.5166
Akinori Iwamura41.1NA222
Makoto Kaneko30.8NA180

Two longtime inoffensive shortstops Masahiro Kawai and Shinya Miyamoto continued to build support, being named on 61.6 percent of the ballots and 58.2, respectively.

At the other end, Akinori Iwamura and Makoto Kaneko both dropped off the ballot on their first try, having failed to be named on 2 percent of the ballots.

HOF Experts Division Results 2020

NameVotes2020 Pct2019 pctCareer Win Shares
Koichi Tabuchi10980.764.7292
Randy Bass8965.963.2133
Masayuki Kakefu6245.930.8303
Keishi Osawa4936.330.1
Isao Shibata4029.626.3261
Tokuji Nagaike3727.417.3216
Hideji Kato2820.719.5286
Masayuki Dobashi2720.024.1155
Mitsuhiro Adachi2115.614.3204
Shigeru Takada1712.6NA167
Masataka Nashida1712.619.5103
Akinobu Okada1611.910.5208
Kiyoshi Nakahata1511.110.5148
Yoshinori Sato1410.4NA175
Hiromu Matsuoka128.97.5233
Mitsuo Tatsukawa118.1NA110

In the expert’s division, slugging catcher Koichi Tabuchi got his overdue reward, while another popular former Hanshin Tiger, two-time triple crown winner Randy Bass, moved to the top of the division’s pecking order with 65.9 percent of the vote.

The good news from Japan’s equivalent of the veteran’s committee was that Masayuki Kakefu moved up from an embarrassing 30.8 percent of the vote last year to 45.9 percent and will be poised to go in after Bass is elected a year from now.

Hall of Fame time 2020

By this time tomorrow we’ll know whether or not a large majority of voters for Japan’s Hall of Fame have stepped up to the plate and done their job or are still in need of a spine transplant.

I’ve written at length about the players division and Tuffy Rhodes, who I rank as the 31st best player ever to lace up his spikes in NPB. Rhodes was left off over 60 percent of last year’s ballots to finish ninth behind eight guys who are in most ways less qualified then him.

Former White Sox reliever Shingo Takatsu, who was runner-up in last year’s players division ballot, and has an argument for selection in that he was for a time NPB’s career saves leader. He and Hall of Famer Kazuhiro Sasaki were really the first two Japanese closers who were effective year after year at a relatively high level. They were both eventually surpassed by Hitoke Iwase, but their achievements still deserve some recognition.

The experts division, however, is more interesting. Last year’s runner-up with 64.7 percent of the 75 percent needed for induction was slugging Hanshin Tigers catcher Koichi Tabuchi. Right behind him, however, was Tigers first baseman and two-time triple crown winner Randy Bass.

I’ve written about Bass a bit. His career profile would have been better had he played in Japan longer, but he had to return to America when his child needed cancer treatment and that was that.

In my book, Venezuelan first basemen Roberto Petagine and Alex Cabrera had better careers in Japan than Bass, but neither were particularly well-liked by the media, almost a prerequisite for selection by baseball writers. Tom O’Malley, too, probably had a better career here, but the likable Bass’ claim to fame as the MVP on a historic franchise’s first Japan Series championship team — and two triple crowns — carries more cache.

By my count, Tabuchi is the third greatest catcher to ever play in Japan, behind Hall of Famer Katsuya Nomura and the recently retired Shinnosuke Abe. I also think Tabuchi is the second-best candidate on the expert’s division ballot. The best, and I have him as the second greatest third baseman of all time, is yet another Tiger, Masayuki Kakefu.

Kakefu was a distant third in last year’s ballot. Behind Tabuchi’s 64.7 percent and Bass’ 63.2 percent, Kakefu mustered only 30.8. But if Bass and Tabuchi go in this year, Kakefu is sure to shoot up in the voting.

My ballot for 2020

My ballot, in the order I believe they deserve to go in is:

  1. Tuffy Rhodes
  2. Hiroki Kokubo
  3. Norihiro Nakamura
  4. Takuro Ishii
  5. Kenji Jojima
  6. Alex Ramirez
  7. Shingo Takatsu

Mind you, Tuffy was fond of saying about long home runs, “If they go in (the seats) that’s all that matters.”

Japan’s all-time greats

As the deadline for Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame ballots approaches, and people talk about who should be in the Hall of Fame — as opposed to who shouldn’t, it might be constructive to look at who are the all-time greats.

The biggest problem I find with compiling these lists is that the competition is generally better since 1990 than it was in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and even 70s. Thus, it is far more difficult to dominate play than it was 30, 40 or 50 years ago. For that reason, a straight-line numbers comparison between a recent superstar and one from 50 years ago will almost always be one-sided.

Let’s look at how many times a player has led his league in one of the following offensive categories:

  • batting average
  • on-base percentage
  • slugging average
  • doubles
  • triples
  • home runs
  • RBIs
  • stolen bases
  • walks

Sadaharu Oh led his league in one of these categories 102 times. Seven of the top-10 leaders played the bulk of their careers in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. This requires an adjustment to adjust for both the era and the degree to which talent is compacted.

OK. Enough talk. Here are top 20 players in career value in NPB according to Bill James’ win shares formulas and using a competition adjustment (based on the year and the standard deviation of win shares by players with 100-plus games in a season. There may be no perfect solution to this problem but this was mine).

Top Career Totals

NameBest SeasonCareer HighCareer TotalAvg modifier
Sadaharu Oh196541.8672.91.07
Katsuya Nomura196537.5526.31.07
Isao Harimoto196434.1496.11.06
Hiromitsu Ochiai198235.5466.40.94
Masaichi Kaneda 195840459.31.08
Kazuhiro Yamauchi195640.24431.09
Shigeo Nagashima196141.4440.51.12
Hiromitsu Kadota197735.3434.71.00
Tomoaki Kanemoto200538.8434.10.94
Koji Yamamoto198038.3408.11.02

Peak value: Average of best 5 consecutive seasons

The following table represents my estimate of the players who put together the best five-season runs in NPB history.

NamePeriodAverage WSWS totalsModifier
Sadaharu Oh1964-196839.140, 42, 40, 37, 371.07
Kazuhisa Inao1957-196136.037, 40, 40, 20, 441.12
Yuki Yanagita2014-201835.231, 39, 32, 39, 360.93
Ichiro Suzuki1994-199835.038, 38, 38, 33, 280.92
Shigeo Nagashima1959-196334.836, 34, 41, 25, 381.10
Hideki Matsui1998-200234.036, 31, 36, 32, 351.00
Katsuya Nomura1964-196833.830, 38, 34, 33, 341.07
Hiromitsu Ochiai1982-198633.033, 30, 35, 34, 310.97
Masaichi Kaneda1954-195832.525, 35, 33, 30, 401.09
Shigeru Sugishita1951-195532.327, 33, 26, 43, 331.03

Hall of Fame candidates

Here are the 23 candidates on this year’s players division ballot for the Hall of Fame, with their career win shares and best-five consecutive season averages and how they rank all-time in both categories:

HOF candidates 2020

Nam eCareer WSCareer Rank + Peak 5Peak Rank
Atsunori Inaba302.24327.343
Kenji Jojima*227.26026.946
Norihiro Nakamura304.44126.062
Tuffy Rhodes319.93225.866
Hiroki Kokubo310.63725.570
Alex Ramirez247.68424.683
Takuro Ishii298.94824.191
Kenjiro Nomura243.68924.191
Akinori Iwamura168.113224.191
Norihiro Akahoshi146.228720.2175
Masumi Kuwata19116219.6199
Takeshi Yamasaki241.19418.9237
Tomonori Maeda262.37217.9274
Masahiro Kawai147.628415.7379
Makoto Kaneko179.818515.5389
So Taguchi121.923915.0412
Shinji Sasaoka171.720014.4447
Shinya Miyamoto200.614513.7504
Kazuhisa Ishii137.724313.6510
Shinjiro Hiyama137.832113.1552
Shingo Takatsu10043110.1804
2020 Hall of Fame candidates, career win share and peak win share ranks. Career win share rank includes MLB WS for Japanese players.

Another argument for Rhodes

Rhodes won one MVP award, hit 464 home runs, drove in 1,269, scored 1,000, stole 87 bases. He led his league in home runs four times, in runs twice and in RBIs three times. He won seven Best Nine Awards but no Gold Gloves.

In a recent post, I used career value to compare Rhodes to other candidates and players. This time I’m going to look at career accomplishments, his honors, career totals and individual titles.

How do his accomplishments match up against the all-time greats?

Pretty well.

Rhodes is 13th in NPB career home runs. How many of the 20 players with 400-plus home runs are in the Hall of Fame?

One is active, one is not yet eligible, four (Rhodes, Hiroki Kokubo, Takeshi Yamasaki and Norihiro Nakamura) are currently on the players ballot, one (Koichi Tabuchi) is on the experts ballot. One (Kazuhiro Kiyohara) is not on the ballot because of his drug conviction, while Masahiro Doi somehow slipped through the cracks. The other 11 are all in.

Rhodes is 21st all-time in RBIs. How many of the 24 with 1,200-plus are in the Hall?

Thirteen are currently in the Hall, while four others have gotten past the players division without being elected — one of whom is now on the experts ballot. Two are not yet eligible, while five are currently on the players ballot: Rhodes, Nakamura, Kokubo, Yamasaki and Alex Ramirez.

Rhodes is 24th in runs scored. Of the 23 players with more runs, how many are in the Hall?

One, Michihiro Ogasawara, is not yet eligible, while three have been passed over. Rhodes and Takuro Ishii are on the players ballot, while Isao Shibata is on the experts ballot. Sixteen of the 24 are in.

Rhodes is a four-time home run champ. How many three-time winners are in?

Five of the 11 three-time champs are in, while two of the remaining six are on the experts ballot. Koji Yamamoto is the other four-time champ and he is in. Ever eligible player with five or more home run titles is in the Hall.

Nine players who have been eligible for Hall of Fame induction have led their league in RBIs exactly three times like Rhodes.

In addition to Rhodes, two are on the experts ballot, while one has been passed over. Five are currently in the Hall of Fame.

Tuffy was the Pacific League’s 2001 MVP. How many on the players division ballot had more?

Three. In addition to Rhodes, Kenji Jojima won one, and Alex Ramirez won two. The only former two-time MVP who isn’t in the Hall of Fame is Yutaka Enatsu, who was busted for drugs. That’s a good sign for Ramirez as well as future candidates Yu Darvish, Nobuhiko Matsunaka and Michihiro Ogasawara. One MVP award is just another accomplishment.

Rhodes won seven Best Nine Awards.

Six of the 13 seven-time winners are in the Hall. Two are on the experts ballot. Four have been passed over.

Rhodes led his league in an offensive category 18 times. How many of the 19 players who have led in 16 or more categories are in the Hall?

So far, 19 players have done this. Two, Nobuhiko Matsunaka (17) and Ichiro Suzuki (1.5 gazillion), are not yet eligible. Rhodes is the only player who has ever been eligible for the Hall of Fame who has yet to be elected.

Adjusting for career length

Because Rhodes played only 14 seasons, it might be worth some time comparing him to what each of Japan’s best players produced in the 14-season span in which he had the most plate appearances. Rhodes had 7,340 career plate appearances. The most of any player in any 14-year stretch was Tomoaki Kanemoto’s 8,470 so we’re talking about a reasonably level playing field.

After Kazuyoshi Tatsunami was elected to the Hall a year ago, the next two position players ranked in order of the percentage of ballots they were on, were shortstops Masahiro Kawai and Shinya Miyamoto. During their best 14 seasons, the pair’s combined win shares for those 28 seasons: 290.8. Rhodes’ total for his Japan career was 298.

Both Kawai and Miyamoto were good players, and Miyamoto was a good player for a long, long time. But anyone who thinks they deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, while Tuffy Rhodes doesn’t, needs to account for his or her lack of judgement.

In that group, Rhodes ranks 18th in win shares, third in home runs with 406 behind Sadaharu Oh’s 653 and Katsuya Nomura’s 466, eighth in RBIs with 1,275, 10th in runs scored, ninth in walks.

Rhodes never won a Golden Glove, but he did play center field for most of his career in Japan and few of the players who rank ahead of him had a ton of defensive value with the exception of Nomura.

Hall of Fame time again for 2020

I don’t mean to be rude but it’s time for many of my fellow Hall of Fame voters to get their thumbs out of their butts and use their heads for a change.

A player needs to be named on 75 percent of the ballots, and voters this year are able to select up to seven players. Frankly speaking, anyone who doesn’t think Tuffy Rhodes is the best available player is a moron.

Here is a list of NPB’s 10 best players who are not in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame based on career win shares:

NameStatus2019 pctHigh PctCareer Win Shares
Ichiro SuzukiNot eligible581
Kazuo MatsuiNot eligible378
Kosuke FukudomeActive367
Kazuhiro KiyoharaNot on ballotNA22.6365
Masahiro DoiNot on ballot355
Shinnosuke AbeNot eligible349
Taira FujitaNot on ballot322
Tadahito IguchiNot eligible321
Takashi ToritaniActive 321
Michio AritoNot on ballot310

As I mentioned this time a year ago, Masahiro Doi slipped through the eligibility cracks because of his long coaching career and it remains uncertain if he will get another chance. Kazuhiro Kiyohara has not been included on the ballot since the vote for the 2016 class following his drug conviction, while Taira Fujita and Michio Arita were apparently passed over because of their poor relationships with the press during their stints as managers of the Hanshin Tigers and Lotte Orions, respectively.

Below are the top 10 players who are eligible to be inducted this year in the players division. Tuffy Rhodes not only had the best career of any foreign player in NPB history, but he also won an MVP award and became only the second batter to hit 55 home runs after Sadaharu Oh. Hiroki Kokubo comes close to him in career value because he played until he was old enough to manage Japan’s national team — the same goes for the next two guys on the list. In terms of peak value, the only player who can compare with Rhodes in terms of sustained high performance is catcher Kenji Jojima.

NameTimes on ballot2019 pctHigh pctCareer WS
Tuffy Rhodes6th29.639.6298
Hiroki Kokubo2nd32.132.1296
Norihiro Nakamura1st290
Takeshi Yamasaki2nd11.311.3287
Takuro Ishii3rd24.824.8281
Atsunori Inaba1st279
Kenji Jojima3rd15.115.1270
Tomonori Maeda2nd29.629.6243
Alex Ramirez2nd40.440.4230
Kenjiro Nomura7th37.239.6227

Here are the top five in last year’s balloting:

Name2019 PctCareer Ws
Kazuyoshi Tatsunami *77 .4302
Shingo Takatsu60.6113
Masahiro Kawai50.7137
Shinya Miyamoto41.2187
Alex Ramirez40.4230

The voters clearly got the best available player not yet in the Hall of Fame a year ago, but after that it was a mess. Takatsu, at least, at one point was Japan’s career saves leader. Ramirez won two MVP awards and was clearly the best of this bunch, but his career value last year was seventh among the available candidates, and five of those others finished behind him in the voting.

Here are the top 10 players who are eligible to be inducted this year in the experts division,. The Hall of Fame does not publish old records of voting, so these are based on the results I’ve received attending press conferences announcing the votes.

NameTimes on ballot2019 pctHigh pctCareer WS
Koichi TabuchiAt least 7th64.764.7301
Hideji KatoAt least 5th23.032.0290
Masayuki Kakefu2nd30.830.8286
Isao Shibata3rd26.326.3275
Atsushi NagaikeAt least 7th17.323.6240
Hiromu Matsuoka3rd7.513.1238
Mitsuhiro AdachiAt least 5th14.323.0221
Shigeru Takada1st177
Masayuki DobashiAt least 7th24.126.8171
Yoshinori Sato1st166

The top five in last year’s expert division vote were:

Name2019 pctCareer WSOther notes
Hiroshi Gondo *76.797Success as coach, manager
Koichi Tabuchi64.7301
Randy Bass63.21322 Triple Crowns, MVP
Masayuki Kakefu30.8286
Keiji Osawa30.1Success as manager

Rhodes is not an all-time, hands-down, no-question Hall of Famer. But the few players who had better careers than him who are not in the Hall of Fame, Kiyohara, Doi, Arito and Fujita, are bizarre exceptions. None of the players on the ballot have close to his credentials, and in this age of information, one would hope that would make a difference.

Of the 19 players who led their league in 10-plus offensive categories and won six or more Best Nine Awards are out of the Hall of Fame? Three. These are Rhodes, Masayuki Kakefu and Atsushi Nagaike. Kakefu had a longer career than Rhodes with less peak value but he was a quality player and deserves to make it through the expert’s division.

NPB games, news of Aug. 12, 2019

SoftBank Hawks southpaw Tsuyoshi Wada returned to action and the day brightened.

The 38-year-old lefty has no secrets. He’s going to throw his good changeup and his 88.2 mile-per-hour fastball a lot, and mix in a slider that is nothing really special but looks like the other two pitches coming out of his hand. He’s going to stay around the zone and more or less throw all his pitches where he wants them.

Having left his last two starts with discomfort in his right hamstring, Wada had not pitched since July 20. He was worth waiting for.

Pacific League

Hawks 6, Buffaloes 3

At Yafuoku Dome, Tsuyoshi Wada (2-1) announced his return to duty by striking out the side in the first inning, while Alfredo Despaigne homered twice to lift SoftBank past Nippon Ham and to a series sweep despite a slick performance from veteran right-hander Chihiro Kaneko.

“The way I left the mound in my last outing here — and the one before that — was pretty lame,” Wada said. “It took me about 22 days to be able to pitch again, but I’m pretty happy to be back.”

“I had the sense that everyone was concerned about the fitness of my leg, so I thought the best thing I could do was show people I was 100 percent. To do that, I wanted to come out pitching as well as I could, and that turned out OK.”

Game highlights are HERE.

Wada struck out leadoff man Haruki Nishikawa looking on three fastballs. A called first-strike slider started Taishi Ota, who missed badly on a 1-1 change and a 1-2 fastball. Compared to them, Kensuke Ota’s five-pitch at-bat was a prolonged siege. The Fighters’ leading hitter, too, went down flailing at a pitch out of the zone.

Yoshikawa (0-3) made his third “short starter” appearance since he returned to the Fighters in a trade from the Yomiuri Giants. His last one, on July 30 was moderately successful, two runs over four innings as the Fighters were shut out 2-0 by Eagles rookie Hayato Yuge. But overall, the lefty has now allowed eight earned runs in 8-1/3 innings.

My other favorite Hawk, grinding utility infielder Keizo Kawashima, returned to the lineup for the first time since June 1, and singled to open the game. After a sacrifice, Seiichi Uchikawa drove him home and then scored when Despaigne got under a fastball away that carried farther than he expected and landed on the other side of Yafuoku Dome’s inner fence near the right field foul pole.

After that, it was a case of Wada fooling batters and getting away with his mistakes. He missed with two fastballs to cleanup hitter Sho Nakata, who got under both of them for high fly outs. Wada had to pitch out of a two-out, two-on jam in the fourth, and another one in the fifth — when he surrendered a leadoff homer to Toshitake Yokoo.

“I used up a lot of my strength in the first inning, and as a result, I was missing with pitches in the second and third inning,” Wada said. “But somehow with the help of Takuya (catcher Takuya Kai), we got through it.”

“The team handed me the start having won Saturday and Sunday, and I didn’t want to be the one to drop the ball.”

Kaneko allowed three runners to reach in his five-inning stint, and two were erased on double plays. He left trailing by two runs because rookie Hiroshi Kaino came on in the top of the sixth. After two singles to open the inning, leadoff batter, Nishikawa (.378 on-base percentage) tried to bunt his way on for the first time this season and succeeded in sacrificing the runners into scoring position.

Rookie reliever Hiroshi Kaino, however, struck out two of the Fighters’ best, Ota and Kondo, on two-strike splitters to end the inning.

“He (Ota) a good batter, so I knew I had to be careful with him,” Kaino said. “Kondo, too, is a great hitter as well, so I had to trust in the pitches that my catcher called for and execute.”

Despaigne homered again in the bottom of the eighth to make it a 6-1 game, and the Fighters rallied for two in the ninth against Ren Kajiya. Closer Yuito Mori hit a batter to load the bases with two outs before recording his 24th save.

Lions 9, Marines 2

At Zozo Marine Stadium, Zach Neal (6-1) allowed one run — on Leonys Martin’s sixth home run — over 6-2/3 innings as Seibu handed Lotte its fourth-straight loss.

Mike Bolsinger (3-4) surrendered three runs, one earned, over five innings in which he walked five. But the Lions broke the game open in the seventh in a four-run seventh against the Marines bullpen.

Game highlights are HERE.

Eagles 3, Buffaloes 2, 10 innings

At Rakuten Seimei Park, 22-year-old rookie Yoshiaki Watanabe doubled in the winning run from first base with two outs in the 10th innings of Rakuten’s win over Orix.

Frank Herrmann (5-3), who worked a 1-2-3 10th inning for the Eagles earned the win, while Buffaloes closer Brandon Dickson (2-1), who walked last year’s PL rookie of the year Kazuki Tanaka with two outs, took the loss.

Game highlights are HERE.

Central League

Swallows 4, BayStars 3

At Jingu Stadium, ninth-inning home runs by Wladimir Balentien and Munetaka Murakami off DeNA closer Yasuaki Yamasaki (3-2) lifted Yakult to a walk-off win after Swallows closer Scott McGough (5-3) surrendered two runs in the top of the inning and was poised to take the loss.

Murakami’s 25th home run ranks him fourth in a season by players under 20-years-old and at 19 years, 6 months, the youngest player to hit a sayonara home run in NPB. Seibu’s Kazuhiro Kiyohara hit 31 as an 18-year-old in 1986 and 29 the following year, while Nishitetsu Lions Hall of Fame shortstop Yasumitsu Toyoda hit 27 in 1953 as an 18-year-old.

Dragons 5, Tigers 1

At Nagoya Dome, Chunichi’s second-round draft pick last autumn, Kodai Umetsu (1-0) won his pro debut, allowing a run over six innings and striking out seven to beat former Dragon Onelki Garcia (2-6) in a win over Hanshin.

Former Dragon Kosuke Fukudome opened the scoring in the first with an RBI double. Garcia struck out 10 over seven innings, but the Dragons had four hits in a two-run first, and Noamichi Donoue hit a two-run homer in the fourth.

Umetsu, who hit 151 kph with his fastball, was a teammate at Toyo University with Hawks rookie flame thrower Hiroshi Kaino and BayStars top draft pick Taiga Kamichatani.

Game highlights are HERE.

Giants 8, Carp 7

At Mazda Stadium, Alex Guerrero made Hiroshima pay for hitting him with a pitch in a four-run first inning by belting a two-run home run in the third as Yomiuri held on to beat Hiroshima in a 4-hour, 17-minute marathon.

The Carp, however, did not go quietly into that good night as the top of the order, leadoff man Ryoma Nishikawa and No. 2 hitter Ryosuke Kikuchi combined to reach base eight times, score five runs and drove in four.

Game highlights are HERE.

News

1,000 whiffs of Yamaguchi

Yomiuri Giants starting pitcher Shun Yamguchi, who spent the first half of his career as a closer for the BayStars, became the 150th pitcher in Japanese pro ball to reach 1,000 career strikeouts on Monday, when he caught Hiroshima’s Seiya Suzuki looking in the third inning at Mazda Stadium.

His first strikeout victim was South Korean slugging star Lee Seung Yeop, on June 29, 2006, who was in his first season that year with the Giants.

Rookie Yoshida set for 3rd start

Fighters rookie pitcher Kosei Yoshida, Nippon Ham’s top draft pick last autumn, has been penciled in to start against the Lotte Marines on Wednesday, when Nippon Ham stages a home game at Tokyo Dome.

Yoshida, who famously threw 1,571 pitches last summer (636 in the Akita Prefecture championship and another 881 in the national summer finals at Koshien). It will be his first start against Pacific League opposition, having started on June 12 against the Hiroshima Carp and again on June 23 against the Chunichi Dragons.

Kuriyama tip toes through Japan’s history minefield

Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama scratched the surface of baseball history on Wednesday with his 527th victory with the Nippon Ham Fighters.

In the Nikkan Sports online edition for May 8, Daisuke Yamashita used Kuriyama’s achievement to provide some insight into history’s web as he moved past Hall of Fame manager Shigeru Mizuhara as No. 2 in career wins with the franchise.

The original story in Japanese is HERE.

While Yamashita does a good job of explaining Kuriyama’s appreciation of Mizuhara’s legacy, the whole exercise represents another example of Japan’s difficult relationship with history and tradition.

In itself, Kuriyama’s achievement is akin to passing Babe Ruth on the Red Sox’s all-time home run list, because Mizuhara is better known as the man who laid the foundation’s for the most successful period in the history of the Yomiuri Giants.

The franchise that from 1954 to 1972 was known as the Toei Flyers, whose principle owner was the Toei movie studio, was taken over by Nippon Ham in 1974.

Mizuhara quit the Giants after Yomiuri’s founder, Matsutaro Shoriki said the skipper had brought shame on the Giants in 1960 for losing the Central League pennant after five-straight championships. Extra credit to you if that sentence summons an image of former Giants owner Tsuneo Watanabe and Hall of Fame manager Tatsunori Hara.

Unlike Hara, who waited for a second chance with Yomiuri, Mizuhara jumped to the Pacific League’s flyers in 1961, managed them to their second consecutive runner-up finish before winning the franchise’s first title the following year.

To return to the present, Kuriyama spoke of Mizuhara and his great rival, Osamu Mihara, who never managed the franchise, but who was the team’s first president under Nippon Ham in 1974. Mihara had been supplanted as Giants manager by Mizuhara, and who – after building the Nishitetsu Lions into a PL powerhouse – sparked Mizuhara’s Yomiuri exodus in 1960 by winning the CL pennant with the unheralded Taiyo Whales.

“They were baseball’s founding fathers. I think of them together, Mr. Mihara and Mr. Mizuhara, as belonging to that one era,” Yamashita quoted Kuriyama as saying after Wednesday’s 1-0 win over the Orix Buffaloes.

According to Yamashita, Kuriyama, a lover of history, spent time over the offseason reading Japanese classic history texts, the “Kojiki” and the “Nihon Shoki.”

“Pretty much everything that happens is something someone has experienced in the past. Things really don’t change that much. I’m going looking in those texts,” Kuriyama has said according to Yamashita.

The best part of the story is that while the word “history” is often dragged out as a tired excuse for doing something unimaginative, Kuriyama has shown he is not terribly interested in defending old ways. The same man who conceived of – or at least takes credit for – the idea that Shohei Ohtani might both hit and pitch, is this season adopting extreme defensive shifts and experimenting with different starting pitching and relieving assignments.

In referencing both Mihara and Mizuhara, Kuriyama both speaks to his own nature while still paying his respects to Japanese baseball’s creed that eliminating negatives equals a positive.

Mizuhara, an unrelenting perfectionist, in ways represents the popular notion that zero defects is perfection, while Mihara, a brash innovator, represents, I think, more of Kuriyama’s true nature as someone who strives to be an early adaptor on the cutting edge.

It’s a difficult balance to strike in Japan, because innovation carries the possibility of an implied criticism of how things were done before by the game’s greats.

Less-established innovators who fail to pay lip service to their esteemed predecessors by kissing dogma’s ass, often end up being cast out for their trouble. The trick is to do things differently, while making excuses for it, and not appearing to be too proud about having coming up with something different and giving everyone else credit. So far, it’s been working for Kuriyama.

Well-traveled Rhodes

There is a line in James Jones’ “From Here to Eternity” that comes to mind whenever the story of Tuffy Rhodes‘ Japanese baseball legacy comes up. In that work, an earnest and skilled but persecuted soldier speaks of his affinity for America’s prewar army, while recognizing that the feeling was not mutual.


“Just because you love something doesn’t mean it has to love you back.”

Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt from James Jones’ “From Here to Eternity.”

That line could easily apply to Rhodes, who had one of the most outstanding careers in Japanese baseball history, but is having a hard time gaining support among voters for the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.

Tuffy Rhodes as cautionary tale

In America, most people remember Rhodes for one of two things. It’s either his three home runs on Opening Day in 1994 and a major league career that produced little else, or as a misguided analogy for the level of play in Nippon Professional Baseball.

Whenever a player like Masahiro Tanaka or Shohei Ohtani moves toward the majors, some know-it-all is sure to bring up Rhodes’ career as a sort of cautionary tale. After all, how good can a Japanese player be if he comes from a country where a player with a .224 career average in the majors thrived?

Related content on jballallen.com

Where Rhodes ranks

Rhodes had 590 career major league at-bats, but those were spread over six seasons. In Japan, Rhodes ranks fifth in career slugging average, 13th in home runs, 19th in walks, 20th in RBIs, 23rd in on-base percentage and 24th in runs scored. Japan plucked Rhodes at exactly the moment he was putting his minor league career into overdrive and helped him raise his game in ways MLB did not.

“I went to Japan with an open mind, like a newborn baby. I’m going to live my life as an American in Japan. I’m going to learn the culture,” he said recently in an interview from his home in Scottsdale, Arizona.


“They said, we’ve got good news and bad news. I said, ‘What’s the good news?’ He said, ‘We have a team that wants you to play every day.’ I said to myself, ‘Well, hell. There can’t be no bad news.’ He said it was in Japan and with the contract they were offering me, I didn’t think twice about it. I just said, ‘Where do I sign?’”

Tuffy Rhodes on his reaction to learning he’d been offered a contract to play in Japan

Although easily the most successful imported player in the history of Nippon Professional Baseball, Rhodes’ legacy is complicated. He loved the country and learned to speak the language, but he was also ejected an NPB-record 14 times and got into an ugly incident with Japan’s most popular club, the Yomiuri Giants. As time passes, advocates of his powerful case for admission to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame have decreased.

The Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame

When Rhodes debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2015, he was named on 25.6 percent of the ballots, with 75 percent needed for election. He made steady gains the next two years to 36.6 percent before dipping in 2018 and recovering somewhat in 2019. Still, he’s never gotten the support that DeNA BayStars manager Alex Ramirez got this year in his debut (40.4 percent).

Through 2018, 329 players have achieved the 4,000 plate appearances NPB requires to be included in career leader boards for offensive average stats. Of those 329, 258 have been out of the game for more than five years. Of those 39 have been elected to the Hall of Fame on the merit of their playing careers. When you look at where Rhodes ranks in career totals, it’s hard to grasp why anyone would doubt his qualifications.

Major league flash in the pan

In the majors, Rhodes made his name on April 4, 1994, the day he blasted three home runs off Dwight Gooden. He hit five more homers that season and 13 in his career before coming to Japan, where he would hit 464 and become the second player to hit 55 in a season after Hall of Famer Sadaharu Oh.

“I made the major leagues at 21,” Rhodes said in a recent telephone interview from his winter home in Phoenix, Ariz. “I found it was easy to get to the major leagues, but the hard thing was to stay. I didn’t work as hard as I should have. I tried to rely on or depend on natural ability, when everyone there had ability that was incredible.”

Baseball had not been Rhodes’ favorite sport. Growing up as the youngest of six kids in a tight-knit, sports-oriented family in Cincinnati, he preferred basketball but played everything.

“My father was a football player and my mother was a softball player. They always had a big influence on us when it came to sports,” Rhodes said. “I played every sport. When I was in Ohio, I played football, basketball, indoor soccer, everything. Every day I was at the Boys Club.

“My love of basketball was so strong, and baseball was secondary. I just played the game.”

But that was enough for the Houston Astros to take him in the third round of the 1986 draft. He played sparingly until Houston let him go in 1993. At that point, Rhodes began to bloom. In Omaha for the Royals and with Iowa for the Cubs, he combined to hit .318 with 30 home runs with plenty of walks and was equally as impressive in his 15 games with the Cubs, where he homered three times in 15 games and walked more than he struck out.

With Glenallen Hill hurt at the start of the 1994 season, Rhodes was in the Opening Day lineup at Wrigley Field, when he etched his name in the history books.

“We had Sammy Sosa in right field making $6 million, and Derrick May in left making about $2 million, and Glen was making three or four million,” Rhodes said. “And I was making about $300,000. When he (Hill) got healthy, he just took his job back. The hard thing was I could not make the adjustment to coming off the bench. A lot of guys did that and became successful in major league baseball. I just wasn’t one of them.”

Ready to commit

Rhodes did adjust, however, in terms of his attitude. He had another solid Triple-A season that year, but was waived in May 1995, when he again failed to succeed off the bench. By the time the Boston Red Sox, claimed him, Rhodes said he was ready to commit. Although he didn’t expect the process would take him to Japan to the Pacific League’s Kintetsu Buffaloes, he said the decision to go was easy.

At that time, scout Ray Poitevint was with Boston. A former resident of Japan, Poitevint created a cottage industry of shipping borderline major leaguers to Japan, where he had numerous connections. “Ray Poitevint was there, and I think the Red Sox had Japan in mind when they claimed me,” said Rhodes, who played 10 games for the Red Sox in 1995, but was again solid in Triple-A.

“They said, we’ve got good news and bad news. I said, ‘What’s the good news?’ He said, ‘We have a team that wants you to play every day.’ I said to myself, ‘Well, hell. There can’t be no bad news.’ He said it was in Japan and with the contract they were offering me, I didn’t think twice about it. I just said, ‘Where do I sign?’”

“My thinking about it is I didn’t give 120 percent in America, the total commitment to baseball. I told myself, when I get to Japan I’m going to do whatever it takes to play as long as I can. I didn’t think it was going to be 13 years.”


“I became a student of the game in Japan as well as just being a baseball player. There are things in Japan, preparation before games, preparing yourself for spring training, I had no other choice but to be successful.”

Tuffy Rhodes on how Japanese regimentation helped turn him around.

He may not have known it, but fewer ideas ring louder in the Japanese baseball psyche than “commitment.” In a country that chews up and spits out talented imports who lack commitment, Rhodes was welcomed once his teammates saw he could do more than talk a good game.

Rhodes had played in Venezuela and Mexico, but living in Japan meant immersion in a world that didn’t always make sense.

Getting used to the unexpected

“The bunt in the first inning, the managers getting on the younger kids hard. I’ve seen one of my managers smack one of the rookie players for missing the bunt sign in Tokyo Dome my first year and I could not believe it,” Rhodes said.

“The spring trainings were totally different. It was work, work, work. And they teach you how to play tired. I wasn’t going to complain about nothing. Was I shocked? Yes. Especially when I had to take a hour of batting practice by myself. My first year, (manager Yosuke) Sasaki kantoku made me take batting practice for a hour by myself. Unbelievable. Luckily the next day was a day off. I didn’t come out of the room. I didn’t eat dinner that night. I didn’t come out of my room the next day. I was done. But it taught me, how to use my hands and relax in situations when you’re tired. It worked out well.”

“At the same time, there was the discipline part. You had no choice not to do it. I’m the kind of guy who needs somebody behind me. I need a personal trainer if I’m going to work out. I need a coach if I’m going to work out. I need a schedule, and I know I’m that type of person, so Japanese baseball was great for me.”

Rhodes absorbed every lesson he could, even when those lessons were taught in unconventional ways.

“I became a student of the game in Japan as well as just being a baseball player,” he said. “There are things in Japan, preparation before games, preparing yourself for spring training, I had no other choice but to be successful.”

Part of the preparation that gets mixed reviews with foreign players are long coach-led meeting where opposing batters and hitters are analyzed and the team’s mistakes criticized. As a youngster in the majors, he’d seen teammates studying individually, and Japan offered a structured way to dive in.

“I watched guys take notes in the major leagues, Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace, Andre Dawson. They would make a note of every pitch in every at-bat, and they would go back and check their books when they faced that pitcher and have a plan,” Rhodes said. “I didn’t think anything about it. But when I came to Japan, you have meetings and you have no choice. I listened. I wanted to hear everything they had to say.”

Learning curves

“They taught me to look for 2-0 curveballs and forkballs, to not always look for a fastball. In America we look for the fastball and react to the breaking balls. They taught me to look for different pitches in different counts. I had one pitcher, he threw 95 miles an hour, but 3-2 he threw me a changeup 95 percent of the time. I knew just because of my books and my notes.”

“A pitcher for the Orix BlueWave, a left-handed pitcher, bases loaded, he threw me three curveballs in a row. I was looking for a 3-0 curveball and I got it and hit a grand slam. You’d never look for a 3-0 curveball in America. Here I was looking for 3-2 forkballs, 2-0 forkballs instead of getting set up for my fastball. They taught me how to play chess instead of checkers. I got smarter, stronger. I started looking for pitches. When you look for pitches and you get those breaking balls, you don’t have to be the strongest guy to hit those.”

Another change was physical. Rhodes began seriously weight training in Japan, and with the additional strength and study became an upgraded version of the player he’d been on track to become in his 1994 and 1995 Triple-A seasons.

“I got older, and I started developing. I started lifting weights,” he said. “I never lifted weights in the States, Oh my goodness, no.”

“Two of the greatest things that ever happened to me in Japan was getting to play every day, and playing on a one-year deal for eight straight years. They were very accommodating each year, one other thing that was very good was that I was on the Kintetsu Buffaloes. I wasn’t on the (Central League’s) Hanshin Tigers, I wasn’t on the Tokyo Giants or the Chunichi Dragons. I was on a team like the Minnesota Twins or the Cincinnati Reds, so the spotlight wasn’t on our team so much.”

“I hit .240 or .250 until I figured out the baseball here. If I had hit .240 with the Hanshin Tigers or Tokyo Giants, I probably would have had a one-year experience in Japan.” Instead of a trip to minor league obscurity, Rhodes played every one of Kintetsu’s 130 games and finished the season hitting .293 with a .363 on-base percentage and 27 home runs. In 1999, Rhodes set a career high in NPB home runs when he hit his 28th on July 18, giving him his first shot at Oh’s jealously guarded single-season record. But he hit just 11 after the all-star break and finished with 40.

In 2001, en route to the Pacific League’s MVP award and the Buffaloes’ first pennant since 1989, Rhodes became the second player to challenge Oh’s record. In 1985, American compatriot Randy Bass got to 54 for the before he was blocked by the Giants, then managed by Oh.

Only in Japan

One paradox of Japan is that in an environment that idolizes team play, clubs will bend over backward to help secure or protect individual accomplishments of their players. This often leads to counterproductive tactics in late-season throw-away games. In the case of Bass, it meant not seeing strikes from Giants pitchers when he had reached 54 home runs.

Rhodes got the same treatment on Sept. 30, against the Daiei Hawks, where Oh was then managing. Six days after he tied Oh’s record with a home run off Daisuke Matsuzaka and four days after the Buffaloes clinched the PL pennant, Rhodes didn’t see anything resembling a strike in his first two plate appearances and got himself out in his remaining two at-bats.

Before the game, Oh had praised Rhodes’ home run chase and encouraged him to try and hit 60. After the game, the skipper denied ordering his pitchers to not throw strikes. That command came from battery coach Yoshihiro Wakana.

“Rhodes is a player who is going to go back to America. I don’t want a player like that to break manager Oh’s record,” Wakana told reporters after the game.

Oh never publicly criticized Wakana, but the coach’s contract was not renewed for 2002.

For years, Rhodes steamed about it, telling people how he had no respect for Oh, whose pitchers were at it again the following year when the Seibu Lions’ Alex Cabrera reached 55. Part of the Rhodes paradox is a common one for expats who invest themselves in Japan – disappointment when their second home fails in some way. Having learned to speak Japanese, Rhodes seemed to take things on the field more personally than most. In 2003, Rhodes took umbrage when Seibu Lions pitcher Hayato Aoki hit his friend and teammate Norihiro Nakamura and charged the mound from first base. He blindsided Aoki, who was diagnosed with whiplash. Rhodes’ explanation? Aoki failed to follow Japan’s unwritten rule that requires pitchers to tip their cap after hitting batters.

Japan’s unwritten rule

“He hit Nori. I popped him good,” Rhodes said. “I got suspended one game. He didn’t tip his cap. He would not tip his cap. That set me off, because you’re supposed to tip your cap and show respect, unless you did it on purpose. And Nori is my buddy.”

After eight seasons as a proud resident of Osaka, Rhodes left the Buffaloes after the 2003 season and moved to Tokyo to play for the Yomiuri Giants, who were assembling a huge cast of sluggers after a disappointing third-place finish.

“I was battling with Kintetsu. The Giants had offered me a contract. I didn’t ask Kintetsu to match the contract, just match the years,” Rhodes said. “It was the first time I was going to get a two-year deal, and that’s all I wanted Kintetsu to do. They had never given a foreigner a two-year-deal, so I went with the Giants.

“My teammates were pushing, saying it’s time after about my fifth season. Norihiro Nakamura, he was one, after he got a two-year deal. After that year I saw the reason why. I would have finally got a two-year deal from them. Instead I went to the Giants and it was too late. I loved being in Osaka. I was very comfortable where I was.”

2004: Merger and labor strife

The reason turned out to be that the Buffaloes’ parent company, the Kintetsu Railway, went into the 2004 season intent on selling their baseball club. On June 13, news broke that Kintetsu had entered into talks to merge with the PL rival Orix BlueWave. The move precipitated a labor crisis when owners rejected players’ demands to be consulted. This resulted in NPB’s first and so-far only players strike.

Granted, it wasn’t much of a strike. The players caused cancelations of Saturday and Sunday games on Sept. 18 and 19, a move that met with massive approval from the fans, who gave the head of the players’ union, Yakult Swallows catcher Atsuya Furuta, standing ovations everywhere his team played. But things were settled when owners promised to expedite the creation of a PL expansion franchise to replace Kintetsu and approved interleague play for 2005.

Hard times with the Giants

Although Rhodes told reporters he wanted to finish his career with the Giants, it was not the happiest of marriages. Early in 2005, Rhodes got into a shouting match with coach Sumio Hirota, who accused him of losing a game by failing to chase a ball hit into the gap.

Rhodes was furious. He blasted the Giants to reporters, saying everything was blamed on him despite the team being truly awful. It wasn’t just Rhodes, though. The star-studded club quickly came unhinged under second-year skipper Tsuneo Horiuchi, who made snarky comments about players to reporters and feuded with struggling-but-popular veteran Kazuhiro Kiyohara. As the season wound down, Horiuchi was booed by Giants fans.

Rhodes wasn’t around for that bitter end, though. He hurt his rotator cuff in August and returned to America for surgery and was released after the season. After failing to catch on with the Cincinnati Reds in the spring of 2006, Rhodes returned to Osaka in 2007 to play for the Orix Buffaloes – the team that resulted from the Orix-Kintetsu merger.

Rhodes returns to Osaka

Although he had lost some of his speed and batting average, Rhodes was still a valuable run producer, leading the club in walks and all three Triple Crown stats. Rhodes’ status as an elder statesmen among the foreign players in NPB, didn’t stop opponents and umpires from winding him up. And his knowledge of Japanese certainly helped them push his buttons.

In his most famous ejection, Rhodes turned around in the batter’s box and landed a sumo-like two-handed shove to the mask of Lotte Marines catcher Tomoya Satozaki. Rhodes said it was set up after the Marines had hit teammate Greg LaRocca, who in 2007 set an NPB single-season record by getting hit by pitches 28 times.

“Three game series,” Rhodes said. “They hit LaRocca the first two days. LaRocca hit a groundball to first base. (Pitcher Naoyuki) Shimizu is covering first base. LaRocca kind of gave him a cheap shot. I don’t know if he stepped on him, kind of like an elbow to the back, because they collided and…all heck breaks loose. Who’s batting next? Me. First pitch, inside. Shimizu’s a pretty damn good pitcher. He’s got some pretty good stuff.”

“So I looked back at Satozaki and said to him in Japanese, ‘Remember, I’m not LaRocca.’ He’s down there. I kicked my dirt. I did not kick dirt on him. Then he stands up and says in Japanese, ‘Rhodes, I’m not scared of you.’ I thought, ‘that’s it,’ and I popped him right in the mouth. He’s lucky the umpire got hold of me from behind because I had him on the ground and I was going to punch him.”

Rhodes played in a career-low 84 games in 2009, but still reached base at a .402 clip and slugged .583. Yet, when Orix turned to its fifth manager in six seasons since the merger, Rhodes was not asked back. He waited for a call that never came. It came as a surprise to nearly everyone that when the 2010 roster signing deadline came on July 31, Rhodes’ name was nowhere to be seen.

Learning to coach and relax

With no return ticket, Rhodes stayed at home in Houston, where he coached his son TJ’s basketball team with some success, applying the studious ways he’d approached baseball in Japan to coaching basketball.

“I started out as an assistant coach and the coach stepped down and everyone voted for me to be the next coach,” Rhodes said. “The system was already in order. I just added stuff on. I googled stuff I didn’t know, even though I loved basketball and thought I knew everything about basketball. I did my research.”

His chance to return to Japan for a third time came in 2015 when a former teammate contacted him about being a player coach for the Toyama Thunderbirds in the independent Baseball Challenge League. Rhodes didn’t hit for power, but he did produce, but felt he could no longer play. The team wanted him to come back for 2016, but he had just purchased his winter home in Scottsdale.

“That didn’t work out because they were expecting me to play and I couldn’t play. I couldn’t give them that much,” he said. “They tried to (bring me back), but I had just bought the house out here. I really tried. But by the time I got back to them, they were going to go a different route. I regret I didn’t push a little harder, a little faster.”

And now?

“I’m the true definition of retired,” said Rhodes, whose son is now wrapping up his college studies in Cincinnati. “I’m enjoying life.”

Rhodes said he’d jump at the chance to return to Japan to coach or manage, but wasn’t holding his breath. It is very likely he’ll return at some point – to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, when enough voters manage to get their priorities straight and actually weigh his accomplishments.

“I try not to worry about things like that that I don’t have control over. I would love to be in the Hall of Fame there. It would be a great honor. But you know, there are only two or three things in my life that outweigh the joy, the great time and the learning experience and the people I met in Japan. I can’t replace that.”

Former greats weigh in on high school pitch limits

The outer limits

Since Japan’s Niigata Prefecture has announced its plan to restrict pitcher usage in its spring tournament this year, three former Chunichi Dragons pitchers, two Hall of Famers Hiroshi Gondo and Shigeru Sugishita and Masahiro Yamamoto have weighed in on the issue and expressed widely divergent views.

On Jan. 15, Gondo was announced as one of the three newest members of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. The right-hander’s playing career was defined by his first two seasons. As a 22-year-old out of corporate league ball in 1961, Gondo won 35 games in his 429-1/3-inning rookie season. The following year, he pitched 362-1/3 innings and won 30 games.

Niigata’s new limits will prohibit a pitcher from starting an inning after he’d thrown 100 pitches in a game but not prohibit pitchers from pitching on consecutive days.

Save the game

“I am absolutely opposed to that (sort of restriction),” Gondo said.

“Most of those kids aren’t going to be professionals, and this will be the end of their baseball careers. You don’t want to hold them back. Besides, if you can’t pitch that much in high school without ruining your arm, there’s no way you can make it in the pros anyway.”

On the question of whether high school baseball should be about competition or education, Gondo came down solidly on the side of competition.

“You don’t want to put obstacles in the way of people playing to win,” he said. “People are going to get hurt, and you can’t alter that fact.”

I don’t want to state that as his entire philosophy on the issue, since we only spoke for a few minutes, but he certainly seemed to think that high school ball is safe enough.

Save the kids

Sugishita, whose No. 20 Gondo inherited when he joined the Dragons, wasn’t certain if Niigata’s method was the right way to go, but said, “You’ve got to do something to protect these kids’ arms.”

Yamamoto, a lock to join them in the Hall of Fame after he enters the players division ballot for the Hall’s class of 2021, was even more emphatic when he spoke on Sunday in Yokohama.

At a seminar attended by nearly 600 people that included elementary and junior high school coaches, doctors and parents, Yamamoto spoke of last year’s high school superstar, pitcher Kosei Yoshida.

At the national high school summer championship, Yoshida threw 881 pitches over six games, with four of those games coming over the final five days of the tournament.

“It’s a good thing Yoshida didn’t break down,” Yamamoto said. “But I thought that continuing like he did put the player’s career at risk.”

When Niigata’s prefectural association imposed its rules without asking the national body, the Japan High School Baseball Federation lashed out, calling the new system arbitrary and unenforceable.

But Yamamoto praised the work of Japan’s national rubber ball federation, whose guidelines limit pitchers to 70 pitches in a single game and 300 within a week.

“They have done good work to protect children’s futures,” he said.

No magic number

In a recent interview, Dr. Tsutomu Jinji, a professor of biomechanics who has extensively studied how pitchers mechanics impart movement to baseballs, said there is no magic number of pitches that will prevent injuries.

“Some people possess thicker ligaments, that can withstand more stress and torque,” he said. “Other pitchers are more flexible than others, or possess better mechanics.”

“What that means is that some pitchers’ arms will break down even with very limited usage, while others will survive much heavier workloads without any damage at all. It is possible to prevent catastrophic damage with ultrasound examinations so that pitchers whose elbows are at risk get rest, but that is not being done.”