Tag Archives: Kintetsu Buffaloes

Liar’s poker

The course of relations between NPB and MLB has not always been smooth, and after 1995 — when Major League Baseball granted Hideo Nomo free agency because Nippon Professional Baseball’s organizing document is an obsolete mess that didn’t prohibit him from going.

To keep things civil, the two bodies have a document known in all its glory as the “Agreement between the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball and the Office of the Commissioner of Nippon Professional Baseball.”

Japan’s governing document, the Pro Baseball Agreement was based on the fallacy that Japanese players were inherently inferior to major leaguers. It did not prevent voluntarily retired NPB players from contracting with pro clubs overseas. The thinking was, if Japanese players are not good enough for MLB in the first place, what chance would a retired player have of making a roster?

Nomo moved to the majors by threatening to retire if the Kintetsu Buffaloes declined to meet his outrageous contract demands. They said, “No way,” forwarded his retirement application, and before you could say “sayonara,” he was a major league free agent.

I mention this, because it was followed by some spiteful lies from an NPB official that kept MLB teams from pursuing players in Japan.

Lies

In 1996, when Tadahito Iguchi was a star of Japan’s Atlanta Olympic team, and was seen as a potential candidate to play in MLB, one team filed the paperwork necessary to make sure he was available.

Mind you, Iguchi was then playing for Aoyama Gakuin University, and it really wasn’t necessary for an MLB team to get NPB’s permission, but one scout said, he did, and was told Iguchi was off limits, period.

To be sure, MLB had a kind of gentleman’s agreement to only sign players who had been passed over in NPB’s draft, but it was not a rule. But NPB, still smarting from the fact that MLB followed NPB’s rules when it granted Nomo free agency, simply lied and it took Iguchi another nine years before he would make his MLB debut with the Chicago White Sox.

Incompetence

In order to prevent another player from retiring in order to become a free agent in the States, NPB patched that hole in its leaky rule structure. Unfortunately, the person in charge of communicating with MLB, neglected one thing, Article 14 of the agreement.

“If either party to this Agreement has a material change in its reserve rules or any other rule identified in this Agreement, that party shall immediately notify the other party of any such change, and the other party shall have the right to seek renegotiation of and/or termination
of this Agreement upon ten (l0) days’ written notice.”

Two years passed without incident, until a speedy power-hitting 21-year-old decided he would be better off in the majors than under the stifling long-term deal he’d signed with the Hiroshima Carp as a 16-year-old in the Dominican Republic.

With help from agent Don Nomura and Jean Afterman, Alfonso Soriano announced his retirement from baseball, and, as they said, “did a Nomo.” When NPB pointed to its rules, MLB pointed to the lack of notice from NPB about changing the rules.

If NPB and the league executives were mad after Nomo, the Soriano screw-up left them steaming.

More lies

The next documented incident occurred in 2000. That year, the Nippon Ham Fighters signed an American pitcher from Taiwan, Carlos Mirabal, who saved 19 games for them on a one-year deal. Because he had a veteran agent who had players in Japan and knew the ropes, I would doubt he would leave Mirabal without the customary contractual protection agents give to their clients who are import players in Japan (see my story).

After his solid season, the Colorado Rockies came calling. They contacted MLB, who called their liaison in Japan, and were told, according to the story Mirabal heard, “He’s a reserved player who can’t leave until he’s been here nine years and is a free agent or is posted.”

While that is possible, it is about as likely as a midsummer snowstorm in Tokyo.

The most obvious explanation, is simply that NPB’s official lied to MLB, and Mirabal negotiated a new contract with the Fighters, who had they actually reserved him, could have just handed him a contract with a figure on it and told him to sign it or quit playing baseball.

Catching and quality control in Japan

This is the first in a short series about catchers in Japanese pro baseball and how teams see them. This installment concludes with a list of five catchers with the longest careers in Japan despite being terrible professional hitters — compared to other catchers.

Although I was bashing people this week on Twitter about making broad generalizations about Japanese baseball after someone said major league players would hit a billion home runs if they played their games in Japan because the parks here are so small. But sometimes forming a hypothesis starts with a general statement.

Today’s question, posed by Australian Scott Musgrave, who used to blog about the Nagoya-based Chunichi Dragons, was do Japanese teams favor offense or defense when selecting a catcher?

My gut response was the latter, having seen a number of promising hitting prospects’ careers stall because they were not up to the high minimum standards expected of catchers in Japan.

Tune into the Japan Baseball Weekly podcast HERE.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the answer was not nearly so easy. After spending way too much time looking at the careers of Japan’s professional catchers since the end of World War II, I will say, the first preference is for defense but that teams generally settle on the best option available, and sometimes beggars can’t be choosers.

I believe the preference for defense comes from social pressure within Japan to eliminate mistakes. More Japanese baseball men than I can remember have told me that Japanese baseball is not about winning, but about avoiding defeat, and a belief that a lack of mistakes is the hallmark of excellence.

In the 1980s, the era of “Japan as No. 1” one popular narrative driven by Japan’s propagandists and allies was that Japan was obsessed with quality, to the point that some argued it was virtually part of their physical DNA, if not part of their cultural genetic makeup. Japan succeeded because it cared. There is some kernel of truth to that, in as much as Japan’s artisan heritage still runs fairly strong and honest-to-goodness craftsmen are not hard to find, but a cultural obsession with quality? Give me a break.

After about 10 years here, the truth finally hit me: What was being passed off as some kind of shared Japanese altruistic belief in the sacred value quality was actually the byproduct of a national obsession with not being caught making mistakes. I’ve written about this here and there over the years, but the general point is this: People advance in Japanese society by leapfrogging colleagues whose mistakes have been revealed.

Twentyfive years ago, when I worked as an English teacher at Pepsicola Japan, one of my students was overjoyed to find a tiny barely noticeable printing flaw in packaging material for our new bottled water brand. That mistake, he said, would be worth tens of thousands of dollars in discounts from the supplier. Quality control in Japan is more about mistake control and mistake spotting.

When I had my first Jim Allen’s Guide to Japanese Baseball published in 1994, the endpaper was in the wrong location. When I told the woman handling my order, she took nearly $500 off the price of the printing run out of her commission.

The engine that runs Japan is fueled by a desire to avoid errors while gaining an advantage by ruthlessly exploiting those of others, including those of one’s coworkers.

TV broadcasts here often follow an error in the field by zooming in on the head coach in the dugout writing in his little notebook. The head coach is every team’s drill instructor and those camera shots remind viewers that pros cannot get away with mistakes.

Japanese children, I’ve learned recently, are often trained to hit the ball on the ground especially to the left side of the infield because their opponents, other young children, are poor at fielding and likely to make errors.

I don’t know, but I believe that this is the reason that so few second basemen, catchers and shortstops develop into Hall of Fame-caliber players. It’s not that their defense is being undervalued – as I once believed. SoftBank Hawks shortstop Kenta Imamiya has developed into a solid offensive player but said he put his offensive work on the back burner when he was trying to earn a job because any failure to execute defensively could disqualify him.

I now believe the lack of solid hitters up the middle of the diamond is largely due to teams’ unwillingness to accept big hitters who are below-average fielders because going against the grain here looks like a mistake and invites criticism.

A below-average defensive shortstop who is small, fast and a left-handed hitter whose only offensive strength is bunting will get playing time. Take the same defensive skills and pair them with a right-handed hitter with some pop who draws walks but can’t bunt, and you’ve got a guy who will spend more time in the minors because while he may be a more valuable player, he does not look the part.

Other than pitchers, another species altogether, catchers are the best positioned to lose a game by making mistakes. Not only do they have so many responsibilities, but they also need to be in sync with their pitchers.

The late Katsuya Nomura said once as a young catcher, a coach smacked him on the head after a power hitter homered off a curveball, “Don’t you know not to call for a curve against a power hitter?” When another hitter took a fastball deep, the same coach reprimanded him for calling a fastball to a power hitter. Nomura said that even though he was a teenager, he realized the coach didn’t know what he was talking about.

Nate Minchey, now a Yomiuri Giants scout, said about a pitch that ended up in the outfield seats when he was pitching for the Lotte Marines, “The coach got on the catcher, but it’s not like he threw that hanging curveball.”

Itaru Kobayashi, the former Hawks GM, said, “It’s hard for a catcher to make it to the first team if the pitchers don’t feel comfortable working with him.”

Former Dodgers GM Dan Evans once said that any regular catcher in NPB would be above average defensively in the majors, ostensibly because the standards are so high here. Although that’s also a generalization that would come with exceptions, it’s a product of an overly restrictive selection process that eliminates some worthy candidates in the minors and creates a talent shortage in the top flight.

In the second world war, the Imperial Navy’s naval aviation doctrine washed out all but a tiny percentage of flying candidates. While that allowed for a qualitative advantage early in the war, it soon led to severe talent shortages.

While there’s no problem with moving a quality hitter who is a weak defensive catcher to an easier defensive position, especially if he can run, some slow guys who can really hit get cast as catchers who can’t play defense in the minors and never advance or succeed only because, for once in their careers, fortune turns their way.

Sometimes, because teams believe there are no better alternatives, they stick with inferior catchers whose principal strength is their team’s unwillingness to use an untried alternative.

On this week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast I blurted out that while it’s easy for good-field, no-hit catchers to get some playing time they don’t have long careers. But some have, and below we’ll get into the first list of guys who had good careers despite being really, really bad at producing runs.

Good field no hit

Using Bill James’ Win Shares to calculate win shares per 27 batting outs, I found five catchers since the end of the war who played more than one season as the No. 1 catcher after having two seasons in which they made 0.1 Win Share or less per 27 batting outs as a regular. The numeral in brackets is the number of full-time catching seasons after their second “offensive zero” season as a regular.

  1. Ginjiro Sumitani (7). After 13 seasons for the Seibu Lions and spending 2019 with the Yomiuri Giants, Sumitani, currently owns the best career in Japanese history for a catcher with virtually no offensive value. Sumitani demonstrated he could catch at the pro level straight out of high school and by hitting two home runs in a single game as a rookie – in tiny Kitakyushu Stadium – held out promise Sumitani might someday turn into a hitter. An above-average defensive catcher for most of his career, through his first 11 seasons he’d amassed a total of 0.3 win shares on the offensive side. Ironically, his offensive production has improved since turning 29, while his defense appears to have slipped. He’s won two Golden Gloves.
  2. Takeo Yoshizawa (6). Chunichi’s No. 1 from 1958 to 1961, when his run-ins with first-year manager Wataru Nonin saw him traded to the Kintetsu Buffaloes for the next season. In 1959, Yoshizawa set a CL record by failing to record a hit in 47 straight at-bats, since tied by Chunichi second baseman Masahiro Araki in 2016. He was the No. 1 catcher for the Buffaloes for four seasons, during which time the club finished last three times and fourth once. Yoshizawa died of a stroke at the age of 38.
  3. Akihiko Oya (4). Yakult’s main catcher from his rookie year in 1970 until 1980, Oya won six Golden Gloves and two Best Nine Awards. He had below-average defensive metrics as a youngster but could hit a little. Those two quickly switched, and defense became his strength from his fourth year as a pro.
  4. Masahiko Mori (7). The Yomiuri Giants’ No. 1 catcher from 1959 to 1972 is in the Hall of Fame with the help of his managing career, although he did win eight Best Nine Awards. Japan’s Golden Glove Awards were first handed out in 1972, when Mori was 35, and he didn’t win one. He was not a total disaster as a hitter, but like most catchers of his era, wildly inconsistent, mostly — I’m guessing here — due to frequent injuries that were not severe enough to keep him out of the lineup. He played seven full seasons after his second season as an offensive zero and had five sub-standard batting years in his long career.
  5. Kazuhiro Yamakura (5). The Giants’ No. 1 from 1980 to 1987, Yamakura was the CL’s MVP in 1987, when he had a career year at the plate at the age of 31 – his final year as a regular. Yamakura won three Golden Gloves and three Best Nines. About league average defensively according to Win Shares, Yamakura had a good year at the plate in his first year as a regular and then did little until his MVP season.

Having looked at Mori’s career, I’m pretty certain he doesn’t belong there, and I would love to talk to him about it. I’ve ripped into his published opinions – primarily in his role as Japan’s greatest living apologist for the sacrifice bunt — quite a lot, but the one time we spoke briefly I found him to be a charming gentleman.

Next: The other guys.

2-time PL champion manager Nashida tests positive for coronavirus

Masataka Nashida, who won Pacific League pennants with the Kintetsu Buffaloes and Nippon Ham Fighters and finished his managing career with the Rakuten Eagles, has tested positive for the new coronavirus, his management agency revealed Wednesday according to Kyodo News.

Here is a link to my coronavirus-NPB timeline

The 66-year-old former catcher had been resting since complaining of fatigue on March 25 and developed a fever three days later. On Monday he had trouble breathing and saw a doctor. He was admitted to a hospital on Tuesday, where he was diagnosed with severe pneumonia.

After a 17-year career with the Buffaloes, Nashida coached for the club and after winning the Western League pennant as their minor league manager in 1999, was promoted to manage the first team in 2000. In 2001, the Buffaloes went from last place to first but lost in the Japan Series to the Yakult Swallows.

He managed Kintetsu until the club was disbanded after the strife-torn 2004 season and merged with the Orix BlueWave. He went on to manage Nippon Ham in 2008 following the departure of Trey Hillman, and won the 2009 pennant, only to lose in the Japan Series to the Yomiuri Giants.

He managed the Fighters until 2011 and ran the Eagles from 2016 to 2018.

Tuffy Rhodes: On being himself

On Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2019, 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. 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 second part of our interview — about how Tuffy Rhodes grew in Japan and stayed true to his fiery self.

In 13 Japanese seasons, Rhodes’ 464 home runs are 13th most all time. He is 20th in career walks, 24th in runs. He led his league in an offensive category 18 times. Every position player to lead in more than 15 is in the Hall of Fame except for Rhodes, and Ichiro Suzuki and Nobuhiko Matsunaka — who are not yet eligible.

“If it wasn’t for Tuffy, I would have been another statistic, most likely, of a spoiled American who wasn’t willing to change and adapt…He did more than people know for both cultures.”

former NPB veteran Jeremy Powell

After the 2003 season, his second with 50-plus home runs, Rhodes failed to reach a deal with the Kintetsu Buffaloes. After eight one-year contracts, he wanted a multiyear deal, and they refused.

“I was battling with Kintetsu,” Rhodes said. “The Giants had offered me a contract. I didn’t ask Kintetsu to match the contract, just match the years. 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. Then I found out that the reason why was because they were selling the team.”

In the spring of 2004, just months after he joined the Giants, the Buffaloes’ parent company, the Kinki Nippon Railroad, announced it was going out of the baseball business and would pursue a merger with another Pacific League club that was struggling financially, the Orix BlueWave.

The news that NPB, a two-league, 12-team setup since 1958 was in danger of becoming an unwieldy 11 teams, sent shockwaves through the establishment. Teams began looking for merger partners so that a single 10-team league could be formed with the Lotte Marines and Daiei Hawks the most likely marriage.

When the players and fans asked to be involved in the process, they were told to mind their own beeswax and the resulting strike and strife ended with old-fashioned owners learning the hard way that they couldn’t just make up rules on the fly without concern for others. But instead of being with his longtime teammates as his club played out the string on the road to extinction, Rhodes joined a super team the Giants were building in Tokyo.

“I went to the Giants and it was too late,” Rhodes said. “I loved being in Osaka. I was very comfortable where I was. I was all Osaka, Kansai-jin all the way. It’s totally different. The trains in Tokyo are silent. In Osaka, they’re talking, they’re louder. It’s totally different. The women voice their opinion more aggressively on the phone then the women in Tokyo.”

Being with the Giants meant following lots and lots of rules and being in the spotlight all the time. Although he led the Central League in home runs, the Giants were unraveling under new manager Tsuneo Horiuchi. In 2005, the chaos achieved maximum volume as Horiuchi fueded publicly with popular first baseman Kazuhiro Kiyohara and it became every man for himself.

On April 26, with no outs and a runner on first after an error in a 5-5 game, Rhodes, playing center, gave up on a ball in the gap, allowing a tie-breaking double by Alex Ramirez. In the obligatory postgame meeting, coach Sumio Hirota picked out Rhodes and said the 7-5 loss was entirely his fault.

“Me? What about the pitchers?” Rhodes said afterward.

Rhodes picked up the diminutive coach and pinned him to a wall. Afterward, he told reporters in Japanese that the Giants sucked and they could write what they liked. Things got worse. He tore his right rotator cuff in August and that ended his time with the Giants.

“I was just learning how not to let it get the best of me,” he said. “The cameras were in your face. I played to win and I played hard. It got to the point where I didn’t feel appreciated and I let it get the best of me.”

The competitive spirit that pushed him to do the annual one-hour batting practices in spring training with Kintetsu — at first to show he could do it and later to excel — did at times overcome his better nature, like the time Hayato Aoki of the Seibu Lions hit his teammate Norihiro Nakamura. Rhodes was on first base and blindsided the pitcher for not observing Japan’s custom of tipping your cap to the batter you’ve hit with a pitch.

“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.”

That was Tuffy, fierce on the field and protective of his teammates — even when it was a message they didn’t want to hear. When new pitcher Jeremy Powell had had enough after another run-in with Buffaloes pitching coach Shigeru Hayashi, Powell was ready to grab the next flight home.

“If it wasn’t for Tuffy, I would have been another statistic, most likely, of a spoiled American who wasn’t willing to change and adapt…He did more than people know for both cultures,” said Powell, who ended up pitching over 1,000 innings in NPB and winning 69 games and is now the Miami Marlins’ Triple-A pitching coach.

The lesson Rhodes imparted was this: “Respect that this is their game, but that you can learn from it and thrive.”

“I went to Japan with an open mind,” Rhodes said of his transformation. “Like a newborn baby. I was like whatever happens, happens. I’m not going to worry about anything in America. I’m going to live my life as an American in Japan. I’m going to learn the culture.”

“Our program, we had to go into the gym and do something. So right prior to that, I started working out, started a regimen every day. I felt myself getting bigger and stronger. My diet got a lot better. I started getting faster, stronger, leaner. Going to Japan changed my life in so many ways.”

That started in camp, where unlike in America there are days off but the practice days themselves can be unending. And at Kintetsu, the foreign players were kept later in the day then at most clubs.

“The two-a-days. Oh my goodness, yes. Those were the worst,” said Rhodes, who also struggled in the team’s spring facility because it was surrounded by conifers that shifted his allergy to cedar pollen into overdrive.

“You had to do everything in the morning, from every drill on defense that had to do with infield or outfield positions four hours. Then lunch, and after lunch you’d hit for another three hours, as a team in your groups. That would surprise you. In America, spring training, the first week or so, you’re out of there by noon, 1 O’clock at the latest. Here, you’re just getting started and you’re getting back to your room at 5:30, 6 O’clock at night.”

“Some years, I came later to camp, like the 15th of February, but my regimen was the same. I hit one hour by myself like everyone else, and I’d hit one hour by myself the week before the season started. Sasaki kantoku, (coach Takao) Ise-san, they really taught me how to play baseball in Japan. They were awesome. I had some great coaches.”

They might have taught him the fundamentals, but the spirit was all Tuffy, and what people remember now is it getting out of hand, like the shoving match he had with veteran Rakuten Eagles slugger Takeshi Miyazaki, or punching out Lotte catcher Tomoya Satozaki on July 17, 2007.

Orix teammate Greg LaRocca, who went on to set an NPB record that year by getting hit 28 times in 2007, had been plunked for the second time in two days in Chiba. In his next at-bat, LaRocca took matters into his own hands and fiery Tuffy came out.

“LaRocca hit a groundball to first base his next (Pitcher Naoyuki) Shimizu is covering first base,” Rhodes said. “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 pushed him down 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.”

Tuffy had his seventh 40-home run season in 2008 but broke a finger in May 2009, played in a career-low 84 games (with a .985 OPS). But the sides couldn’t agree on a contract for 2010.

No further calls came until he was asked to be a player-coach in 2015 for the Toyama Thunderbirds of the independent BC League. They wanted him back for 2016 but he was closing a deal on his home in Arizona and things didn’t fall into place.

Although he seems unconcerned about whether he’ll get into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, you get the sense that is one thing that would bring him back to Japan.

But there is another way we might see Rhodes back here where he became Tuffy to a nation of baseball fans and his record eight ejections are just part of his big picture.

“I would love to coach in Japan. That’s the only goal that I want,” he said.

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.”

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?

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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.”