Category Archives: Baseball

Tuffy Rhodes in Japan

A couple of people have responded to Tuffy Rhodes not doing better in the vote for this year’s Hall of Fame vote with thoughts on the things that might be hurting his chances for selection. One person said his criticism of Sadaharu Oh in 2001, and of the Giants are affecting his candidacy.

I’d be amiss if I didn’t report that a few people indicated the reason had to be racism. I’d be surprised if none of the voters are racists because people have unreasonable biases and believe silly things. But having said that, Alex Ramirez did remarkably well in his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot, and for a couple of years Rhodes was on a trajectory that earn him selection.

The Oh home run controversy

That 2001 season was something, and the source of two anecdotes, but lets deal with the aftermath of Rhodes’ failed chase to surpass Sadaharu Oh’s single-season home run record.

Rhodes was the second player to get within spitting distance of Oh’s magic 55. The first to do it, had been Randy Bass of the Hanshin Tigers, who was pitched around when he had a chance to tie it against the Yomiuri Giants in 1985. Oh was the Giants manager, and reportedly had ordered his pitchers not to do that, but it did happen, and Bass ended the season with 54.

Rhodes was the next contender, and tied Oh’s record when he homered off Daisuke Matsuzaka on Sept. 24 at Osaka Dome. He had five games after that to homer, but went 3-for-16 during that stretch. After the Buffaloes clinched the pennant in their next game, all attention turned to Rhodes’ pursuit.

On Sept. 30, the Buffaloes were in Fukuoka to play the Daiei Hawks, managed by Oh, who reportedly told his players to pitch to Rhodes, and then they didn’t. He was walked twice and went 0-for-2. At the battery meeting prior to the game, Hawks battery coach Yoshiharu Wakana told his players he didn’t want to see Rhodes surpass Oh’s record.

“Kintetsu’s won the pennant,” Wakana said. “So there’s no excuse for allowing the manager’s record to be surpassed. The idea of a foreigner surpassing him is distasteful. Mr. Oh must remain the record holder. Don’t work aggressively to Rhodes.”

Wakana explained afterward that he had never instructed his pitchers and catchers to walk Rhodes.

Afterward, both Tuffy and I ripped into Oh for not criticizing Wakana in public, but although I had talked with Oh on numerous occasions, I still didn’t understand him very well.

Oh, however, does things his way. Without any fanfare, he fired Wakana at the end of the season.

I learned something of Mr. Oh’s ways a year later, when the same scenario was being replayed with the Seibu Lions’ Alex Cabrera facing the Hawks after tying Oh’s record. Ahead of their game at Seibu Dome, I asked Oh if Japanese fans were not getting annoyed at seeing Japanese pitchers work around foreign hitters chasing his record every year.

I’ve never seen Oh angrier — but I wasn’t there 20 years earlier when he said he punched out Yomiuri Giants teammate Tsuneo Horiuchi for making a nuisance of himself.

If steam could have come out of Oh’s ears, it would have. I imagined it did.

“That’s a disrespectful thing to say about Japanese pitchers. “Nobody wants to be known in history as the pitcher who gave up the record home run!” he said, raising his voice to the amusement of the Hawks beat writers standing nearby and storming off the field.

A month later I saw Oh prior to the start of a Japan MLB All-Star game. That’s when I began to understand Oh. He came up to me, asked how I was doing and patted me on the back. He is very careful about giving his opinions on sensitive issues if that might embarrass other people.

He wouldn’t criticize his players or staff in public for disobeying his orders.

For year afterward, Tuffy still sounded bitter. I was talking about writing a book about Japanese managers and he said something to the effect that he hoped Oh wasn’t on the top of any rankings I did.

Giant headaches

Rhodes moved to the Giants in 2004, when Yomiuri was collecting big-hitting veterans, but failed to gel. Early in 2005 at a game in Fukuoka, Rhodes failed to chase a ball in the gap and got an earful from coach Sumio Hirota afterward. The normally gentle Hirota blew up, blamed Rhodes for losing the game and disrespecting Japan’s game.

Rhodes, who loved Japan and Japanese baseball, pinned the diminutive coach against the wall and launched into a tirade against his treatment. This might be the biggest strike against him with some voters, who are eligible after covering baseball with a press club credential for 15 years. Since more reporters cover the Giants than any other team with the possible exception of the Hanshin Tigers, if there is any animus there, it could prevent Rhodes from getting the final votes he needs to push him over 75 percent.

Tuffy, who had some issues with Japan’s scandal media since his time with the Buffaloes, joined the Giants in 2004, and one day I saw an advert on the train for a weekly magazine that said, “Foreign star reveals the Giants’ 20 stupid rules.” I asked him about that, but he wouldn’t talk. He just smiled and said he’d tell me after he retired.

First impressions

Some baseball friends decided to get together for a ballgame at Yokohama Stadium in 1996 on Japan’s spring equinox national holiday — which has to be, along with the vernal equinox, two of the coolest national holidays in the world. So there were six or so of us at the frigid ballpark, and we took pity on the young woman whose job was to sell ice cream and bought some from her.

The other memory from that game was the Kintetsu Buffaloes’ new right fielder, Tuffy Rhodes, because he dropped two balls in right field that were hit against the wall.

“He won’t be here long,” said Mr. Knowitall, who had just competed his third English-language Sabermetric guide to Japanese baseball.

Not one of my best predictions, since Tuffy went on to play 1,674 games in Japan.

The jinx

This is also not related to the Hall of Fame, but is just another Tuffy story.

During the summer of 2001, the Buffaloes were soaring en route to the team’s first Pacific League pennant in 12 years. They were coming off a last-place finish in 2000, while the Nippon Ham Fighters were plummeting toward last place after a solid 2000. Prior to a game at Tokyo Dome, with a deadline approaching I talked to Buffaloes and Fighters players about what it felt like to be soaring or plummeting.

From that game, the Buffaloes went on a losing streak and Tuffy believed for some reason, that not only had I jinxed them but that I meant to do so.

So when they clinched the pennant at Osaka Dome, Hirotoshi Kitagawa’s sayonara grand slam lifting Kintetsu to a 6-5 win, I rushed to congratulate Tuffy and Jeremy Powell and some of the other guys on the team.

Tuffy said, “We beat you. You came here to jinx us and we beat you.”

I thought he was joking but he kept that up during the Japan Series, where I covered the final three games at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium. He wouldn’t talk to other reporters until I moved away.

I’m happy to report he got over it.

The one and only Ichiro

Ichiro Suzuki is many things to many people. He’s funny, gregarious, warm-hearted, cool and focused. So much seems to depend on what he wants and where he wants to go.

I caught up with his agent, John Boggs at the winter meetings in Las Vegas, and he relayed some of his insight into the Japanese icon.

One of my Ichiro stories was during the 2009 World Baseball Classic. In the first two WBCs, Ichiro failed to do anything in the opening round in Japan. I was first up with a question at the press conference when Japan arrived in San Diego for the quarterfinal round.

Q: “Do you understand what might be the problem so far? For example is it your timing?

Ichiro: “I have no way of knowing that. Next question.”

Two or three questions later, a guy who writes frequently about Suzuki, asked the same question in Japanese and Suzuki launched into a three minute dissertation on the steps he’d taken to iron out his approach to the plate.

I told that story to Boggs, and said, “You know what it’s like if he doesn’t anticipate what someone is saying or it’s not on his radar?”

Boggs nodded and said, “He doesn’t hear you, and he doesn’t acknowledge you.”

My story on Kyodo News is HERE.