Tag Archives: Chicago Cubs

Former Swallow Barnette calls it quits

Tony Barnette, who became a valuable professional pitcher in Japan, where he fashioned a solid career, before making his major league debut, announced Thursday on Twitter that he was bringing his active career to an end.

My interview with Barnette and the coach he credits with remaking his arsenal, Tomohito Ito, can be found HERE.

After being a big part of the Swallows’ 2015 Central League championship, the club’s first since 2001, Barnette was out of contract with the Swallows. Out of consideration for the club, he asked the Swallows to post him. But knowing he was a free agent, no American team was interested in paying Yakult a posting fee, but he did hook up with the Texas Rangers as a free agent.

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.”

Akiyama going to Reds

The Nikkan Sports has reported early Tuesday morning in Japan that outfielder Shogo Akiyama has reached an agreement on a three-year contract worth in excess of $15 million, citing a source.

The 31-year-old center fielder and leadoff man is easily the most balanced all-around hitter in Japan see my profile of him HERE. He is expected to take a physical with the Reds in the coming days. In addition to the Reds, the San Diego Padres, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays, Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs were all reportedly interested in NPB’s single-season hit record holder.

Akiyama home run collection.

The Reds are the only major league club that has never had a Japanese player on its active roster.

A collection of Akiyama’s defensive highlights.

Free agent center fielder Akiyama could have deal this year: Report

Japan’s Nikkan Sports reported Friday the Cincinnati Reds have put a multiyear offer on the table for free agent outfielder Shogo Akiyama, and are the top candidate to sign the 31-year-old, citing multiple major league sources.

The Reds, Arizona Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs have all been tied to the center fielder and leadoff hitter for the two-time defending champions of Japan’s Pacific League. Those teams met with Akiyama at December’s baseball winter meetings in San Diego.

My profile of Akiyama is HERE.

The report says the Rays and Cubs showed the most interest early on. Akiyama broke Japan’s single-season hit records set in 2010 by Matt Murton, who is currently working in the Cubs’ front office.

The Nikkan Sports story, however, said Cincinnati has since upped the ante and a deal with the club could be concluded before the end of the year. If Akiyama moves to the Reds, he will be the storied club’s first Japanese import.

Unlike compatriots Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Shun Yamaguchi and Ryosuke Kikuchi, Akiyama is a free agent and is not bound by a signing deadline. He is represented by agent Casey Close. On Friday, Kikuchi announced he would return to the Hiroshima Carp for 2020.

Other reports, including this one from the Hochi Shimbun, indicate the San Diego Padres have recently entered the bidding for Akiyama.

Tsutsugo, who was also a fixture on Japan’s national team, has concluded a two-year deal with the Rays, while pitcher Yamaguchi has reportedly agreed to a two-year contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. Kikuchi, a record-setting glove wizard, has roughly a week to sign before his rights revert to the Hiroshima Carp of Japan’s Central League. Yamaguchi, too, has a Jan. 2 deadline to complete his deal.

Akiyama highlights published this year by Pacific League TV.

Although a good comparison to former big league outfielder Norichika Aoki, Akiyama will strike out a little more — everyone does — but drive the ball better to the opposite field.

Reds making strong bid in pursuit of Lions center fielder Akiyama: Report

The Nikkan Sports reported Thursday that the Cincinnati Reds are shaping up as the top candidates to sign free agent Seibu Lions center fielder Shogo Akiyama.

The Reds are the only major league team never to have a Japanese player on its active roster. The 31-year-old Akiyama has more power than former major leaguer Norichika Aoki, but the two are otherwise comparable.

Akiyama, who holds NPB’s single-season hit record, is represented by agent Casey Close.

Akiyama’s side met with four teams at the 2019 winter meetings in San Diego, including the Chicago Cubs, Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays.

The report says the Rays and Cubs showed the most interest early on. Akiyama broke Japan’s single-season hit records set in 2010 by Matt Murton, who is currently working in the Cubs’ front office.

The Nikkan Sports story, however, said Cincinnati has since upped the ante and a deal with the club could be concluded before the end of the year. If Akiyama moves to the Reds, he will be the storied club’s first Japanese import.

Unlike compatriots Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Shun Yamaguchi and Ryosuke Kikuchi, Akiyama is a free agent and is not bound by a signing deadline. He is represented by agent Casey Close. On Friday, Kikuchi announced he would return to the Hiroshima Carp for 2020.

Other reports, including this one from the Hochi Shimbun, indicate the San Diego Padres have recently entered the bidding for Akiyama.

Tsutsugo, who was also a fixture on Japan’s national team, has concluded a two-year deal with the Rays, while pitcher Yamaguchi has reportedly agreed to a two-year contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. Yamaguchi, has a Jan. 2 deadline to complete his deal.

Akiyama highlights published this year by Pacific League TV.

Although a good comparison to former big league outfielder Norichika Aoki, Akiyama will strike out a little more — everyone does — but drive the ball better to the opposite field.

My profile of Akiyama is HERE.

Akiyama plays it cool in Hawaii

Free agent outfielder Shogo Akiyama, in Hawaii with his teammates on the Seibu Lions’ Pacific League championship trip, said there was no point worrying about the market for his services in the major leagues, the Nikkan Sports reported.

According to the story, Akiyama met with four teams last week in San Diego at the baseball winter meetings: the Chicago Cubs, Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds, and Tampa Bay Rays. On Monday, the Rays made their contract with Akiyama’s Japan international teammate Yoshitomo Tsutsugo official. Akiyama suggested Tsutsugo’s signing had nothing to do with his own opportunities.

“What good would it do to get worked up about things. He (Tsutsugo) and I offer different things.”

My profile of Akiyama is HERE.

Taking a Sledge to baseball world

With major league scouts annually scouring Japan for imported players who’ve raised their games in Nippon Professional Baseball, Terrmel Sledge, now a hitting coach with the Chicago Cubs, believes an overlooked factor in players’ growth here is simply the understanding one gains of the world and the people in it.

Some NPB veterans say Japanese coaching made them better, some say it is the attention paid to practicing fundamentals or the extreme focus on fitness. Sledge, the son of a Korean mother and an American father, said his big takeaway from his time with the Nippon Ham Fighters and Yokohama BayStars was the experience of being there.

Terrmel Sledge
Chicago Cubs hitting coach Terrmel Sledge

Being there

“I was talking to one of our players who played in Korea. It’s the experience: different cultures, how they eat, family, discipline. It’s different,” Sledge said at the Cub’s spring training facility in Mesa, Arizona, in March.

“You almost wish other players could travel internationally and have a different perspective and not be so hard on themselves when they come back into their own in the United States.”

“It’s not about saying what culture is right or wrong. A good example, when I went over there, a tougher adjustment was the spacing between people. Every one is in your face or right behind you. It’s like, ‘Why are you so close to me?’ I heard in Australia it’s like extra space and in the U.S. it’s in the middle. You’ve got to adjust. You are in their country.”

When he finished playing, Sledge broadened his horizons further, traveling the world on business.

Going outside the game

“I did odd jobs, in small business, building web sites, google adverts and Adsense, flew all over the world, Bangkok, flew to China, India,” he said. “But I needed to be around baseball. I had to be on the field. Baseball was my whole life, I felt I had to get back in the game.”

“I am new with the Cubs. My first year with them was 2015, I went to the Dodgers for three years and now I’m back with the Cubs again.”

Like going to Japan or traveling the world, becoming a coach meant dealing with a new reality, one in which he was removed from the center.

On the outside looking in

“It’s like you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum,” he said of coaching. “It’s not really about you. They don’t care what you did or whether you’re a Hall of Famer or whatever. It’s what can you give them.”

“Our careers are over. It’s not about us or what we did. They frankly don’t even care. We’re on a different end and you have to find your way in. You just base it around as long as they know you care, genuinely really care. That’s the biggest thing to do.”

Finding one’s way in — in order to function as a coach — is yet another adjustment in a lifetime of baseball adjustments. In Japan, while dealing with the world off the field, Sledge had to cope with fewer bread-and-butter fastballs in hitter’s counts and those umpires whose view of the strike zone, players say, are colored by the batter’s nationality.

While Japanese baseball places a huge value on fitting in, foreign players who don’t succeed don’t last long.

Adjusting to Japan

“…I thought it was going to be a more relaxed environment, but foreigners have more pressure. They’re expected to do more,” Sledge said. “Their culture, I felt, for foreigners coming in there, I felt it was like, ‘Hey. You’re not going to just come in here and think you’re going to be successful. A bigger strike zone. A lot of offspeed pitches in hitters counts, so I had to study pitchers like the back of my hand. That helped me become a hitter over there and helped me survive for five years, studying the pitchers…because I grew up hitting a fastball my whole life.”

And now he’s studying hitters while trying to master the interpersonal relationships that are now central to his job.

Asked what he needs to do when he spots something a player is doing and is keen to deliver a message, Sledge said, “You better wait it out.”

“It’s about building the relationship, knowing that they know you care. You can’t just go in there and say (it) – especially at this level since these guys are the best baseball players in the world. I can tell a guy what I think only if we truly have that relationship together.”

In that respect, his being with the Cubs has provided a tremendous example in manager Joe Maddon.

Among the Maddon-ing crowd

“I was fortunate enough in my first year to be in this culture and environment,” Sledge said. “And you knew these guys can win the World Series, so my bar was set high. So everywhere I go I compare that to the Chicago Cubs. And being around Joe Maddon? What else can you ask for? You learn so much being around him.”

“He’s such a people person. Why wouldn’t you want to be around him? You don’t find too many guys like that.”

Maverick Uehara runs his course

Former Yomiuri Giants ace and Boston Red Sox closer Koji Uehara announced his retirement Monday in Tokyo, bringing an end to an entertaining and dynamic career in which he became the first Japanese player to register 100 wins, saves and holds.

At a press conference in which the 44-year-old worked in vain to hold back tears, saying he came into the season knowing it would be his last. Three months after the start of camp and unable to get batters out on the farm despite feeling fit, Uehara said he wanted to call it quits sooner rather than later – when a retirement press conference might be a distraction during the pennant race.

Read a transcript of Uehara’s retirement press conference in Tokyo HERE.

Uehara burst on the scene in 1999, going 20-4 for the Giants after he turned down the Angels, who were said to have offered a deal worth $9 million – about seven times what an NPB team could officially offer an amateur.

In 2005, he told Japan’s Daily Yomiuri (now the Japan News) the Giants guaranteed he would start on the first team, while the Angels would only go as far as handing him a Double-A opening. Between that, not having to be deal with a language barrier and whatever the Giants were offering under the table, Uehara signed his future away to Yomiuri.

Within a few years, however, Uehara was pushing the Giants for an early exit so he could play in the majors.

“Nine years needed for free agency in Japan is truly a long time, but as an amateur, you don’t think about that,” he told the Daily Yomiuri.

When the Giants’ windbag owner Tsuneo Watanabe told the media that he would fire any player who asked to be posted, Uehara demanded to be posted. When Watanabe threatened to release any player with the temerity to send an agent to contract negotiations, Uehara sent his agent, only for the Giants to deny that Uehara’s representative was in fact an agent.

When Japanese players aquire the service time needed to file for free agency, NPB alerts the media, and reporters descend on them, only to hear, “We’re in the middle of the season. My only focus is on winning a championship.”

Not Uehara.

“I’m going to the majors,” he said during the middle of the 2008 season, a mediocre year that went downhill after he broke the taboo of talking about free agency during the season.

In 1999, he won the Central League’s rookie of the year award and winning the Sawamura Award as Nippon Professional Baseball’s most impressive starting pitcher.

At the end of the season, with the Giants out of the pennant race, Uehara made a meme of himself by protesting a Japanese baseball custom of not competing in order to assist a teammate’s pursuit of an individual title.

With Hideki Matsui pursuing the CL home run title, Uehara was ordered to walk Yakult Swallows slugger Roberton Petagine. Uehara, showed his bent for idealism and tears by crying on the mound, and his distaste for the order by kicking the dirt on the mound after Petagine trotted to first base.

The following year Uehara began suffering the first of a long series of leg injuries but bounced back to be one of the league’s top pitchers from 2002 to 2004. For two years after that Uehara battled more injuries and in 2007 was sent to the bullpen, where he was dynamite as the Giants despite constantly lobbying for a return to the rotation that his fitness wouldn’t justify.

He got a brief shot at starting in 2008 but failed badly, and chose the Baltimore Orioles the following season because they promised him a chance to start in 2009. Traded to the Texas Rangers in 2011, the following season, he was in a pitching staff with two former NPB strikeout leaders, Colby Lewis and Yu Darvish, as well as his high school teammate, Yoshinori Tateyama.

In high school, Tateyama had been the ace, while Uehara who had run track in junior high, was an outfielder, whose principle mound role came as a senior as a batting practice pitcher. He didn’t begin pitching in earnest until he entered university, where he went to earn a teaching credential.

Uehara’s stay with the Rangers, however, was brief. He was cut loose after a poor run of results at the end of the 2012 season and available to the Red Sox at a bargain price and finished seventh in the American League’s Cy Young Award voting.

After one last season in the majors with the Chicago Cubs in 2017, Uehara, at 42 with 95 MLB saves under his belt said he would retire rather than return to NPB, but in March he admitted that he was not ready to give up the life of a pro ballplayer and signed with Yomiuri.

He pitched in 36 games last year for the Giants, going 0-5 with 14 holds and no saves. Last October, he had surgery to clean out his left knee. The Giants released him and re-signed him for 2019 after he was declared fit.

Although he said he was fit all spring, he was ineffective. Through April, he toiled with the Giants’ minor leaguers. He struck out 10 batters in nine innings in the Eastern League but allowed four runs. At his retirement press conference on Monday, he said he’d come into the 2019 season knowing it would be his last. That knowledge, he said, hindered his search for the extra gear he might have had that would turn his year around.

“If you have a next year, then you work even harder,” he said. “This year I was going to compete for a full season, but I had already told myself I didn’t have any more next years. As one would expect, I found it very hard to keep my body and mind in sync.”

Dice-K apologizes for golf

Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has been rehabbing since a fan injured him with an overzealous high five during spring training in February, apologized on Friday for playing golf the day before.

The Chunichi Dragons indicated Thursday that the former Boston Red Sox and New York Mets pitcher would face a penalty for breaking team rules, which got his former Japan teammate Yu Darvish up in arms about Japanese baseball’s repressive customs.

“I made trouble through my careless acts,” Matsuzaka told reporters at Nagoya Stadium, where he rejoined the Dragons farm team after a trip to the Tokyo area for treatment.

The team prohibits players from playing golf on practice days, even though Matsuzaka was not scheduled to join his teammates in their practice over 200 miles away in Nagoya.

On Monday, Matsuzaka threw his first bullpen since February, and was slated this week to throw batting practice. “I need to refocus and concentrate on baseball,” he said.

“I will give my best effort so I can contribute to the team as soon as possible.”

Injured and rehabbing players in Japan are expected to be monk-like in their devotion to “returning to the team as soon as possible.” And clubs typically do not make such players available for interviews regardless of their actual availability.

Yu Darvish hit out at the custom on Twitter.

“Of course, it would be no good if he lied to the team and skipped out on his treatment to play golf, but nobody was writing that. But playing golf either before or after his treatment is no big deal. Simply put, the restrictions placed on injured players in Japan are oppressive.”

Chicago Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish via Twitter on the subject of rehabbing pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka being punished for playing golf.

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.”