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.
Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt from James Jones’ “From Here to Eternity.”
“Just because you love something doesn’t mean it has to love you back.”
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.
Tuffy Rhodes on his reaction to learning he’d been offered a contract to play in Japan
“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?’”
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.”
Tuffy Rhodes on how Japanese regimentation helped turn him around.
“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.”
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
“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.”
“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
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
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
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
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
“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.”
“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.”