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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.

On being disciplined and flexible in Japan and in life

Mr. Brown comes to town

Outfielder Roosevelt Brown only played in Japan for two seasons, and it didn’t provide a spring board to a longer career in the States, but the experience, he said recently, wasn’t wasted on him.

Brown joined the Orix Blue Wave in 2003, roughly three years before he went 0-for-1 as a pinch hitter at Tokyo Dome for the Chicago Cubs against the New York Mets. In Las Vegas last December at the baseball winter meetings, Brown spoke about his experiences and impressions of Japan’s game.

“Guys here now really want to go over there. They’re starting to hear how good the baseball is over there,” said Brown, who upon his retirement built homes and still owns that construction company, while working as an advisor with sports training business, Vizual Edge.

The stories and the reality

“All the nightmares that I heard about, I did not seen none of those. The Japanese people took care of me and I really appreciate the hospitality of the people of Japan.”

After an excellent debut season at the age of 27, Brown could see himself finishing his career in Nippon Professional Baseball, but it didn’t happen.

Players are now turning to Japan not for their final playing paychecks from an inferior league, but as an opportunity to realize more of their potential than they had shown in the States. Often, the time spent in Japan makes them better players.

“And better people, too. You learn a lot and you improve your game,” Brown said.

“The difference with Japanese baseball is the strength. You have more stronger guys at the big league level than you do in Japan. That’s the only difference. The command of the fastball, offspeed stuff, they can command all three pitches. The players here are a lot bigger, but they just don’t have the body control that most Japanese have.”

“They (Japanese) do a lot of body weight stuff. When they take their shirts off, they look like they’ve been lifting weights. The body tissue, because of the diet with a lot of seafood, their tendons are softer so their muscles expand more than an American player who eats a lot of beef. They eat a lot of protein but with lots of seafood, so the flexibility of Japanese players is ahead of a lot of American players.”

A new approach

A frequent passenger on the Triple-A, major league shuttle, Brown began studying martial arts, to increase his flexibility and fitness. The process opened his eyes to some of the things about Japan’s game that are not readily apparent in the numbers.

“It started in 1999,” Brown said. “I wanted to increase my flexibility, because I found out that flexibility creates strength. The longer the muscles are, the more agile you can be. When I got into martial arts, I just started liking it. I put my kids in it. I took private lessons. Before I worked out I would go in about 5 am and train with my master, and after that I would go to the gym and work out with my trainer.”

“It helped me tie in the biomechanics of the swing and how to tie in my energy and put the most energy into one area. I noticed a lot of the Japanese guys at the plate had the same ability. They got the most out of their bodies.”

An audience with the king

And in Japan he had the chance to meet with a man whose practice of aikido and other martial arts had helped turn him into one of the greatest power hitters the world has ever seen.

“I had a conversation with Sadaharu Oh,” Brown said. “I was trying to figure out what was his secret to hit so many home runs because he’s so small.”

“He used his body probably better than anybody in the history of the game. He was small. The only other hitter who had that power and that size when I played was Michihiro Ogasawara. Those guys’ weight transformation through the baseball was probably better than some guys in the States. I learned a lot. It was an awesome experience.”

Two years provides just an introduction to Japan’s whys and wherefores. Although Brown gained insight into swings, training and diet, some mysteries remained unsolved. Keen to earn the respect of his teammates, he tried to be the best at whatever the BlueWave players were doing, but when it came to Japan’s training grist mill, he had to raise his hand and take a time out.

“They were overworking and I had to talk to the team and say, ‘Look, if you want me to be 100 percent in August, we need to find a better way to buffer the work,’” he said. “Because I was accustomed to training hard in the offseason and maintaining during the regular season, but those guys train in season and offseason.”

“That amazed me how well those guys stayed in shape, because they were heavy smokers. Those guys would run forever despite the fact that they smoked. I saw myself as not being able to do something like that.”

A way of life

What he could relate to were elements of the culture that meshed with his own values, the importance of craftsmanship in Japanese society that is manifested in the discipline and respect the players are nurtured in. To some Latin players, Japanese baseball can at times seem joyless, but Brown discovered learning points on and off the field.

“I learned a lot about discipline,” he said. “The culture of Japan is built on discipline and respect. I knew about respect. I was raised that way, but Japan made me take it to the next level.”

“You’ve got to embrace change when you go there. It’s their way of living and you’re going over there, and you’ve got to make those adjustments to succeed. If I hadn’t got injured, I probably would have played the rest of my career over there.”

After he got hurt in 2004, his career ended all too quickly following a good 2005 season in Triple A with the White Sox.

Endings and beginnings

“It was tough because I had to leave the game earlier than I anticipated because of injury,” he said. “It was tough, but I dealt with it. It’s part of life, and I live not through my kids, but my kids all play baseball, my family members all play baseball. It’s something I won’t ever be able to get away from. I understand that. I thought about if I would be a bitter guy, but I look back on my career and I hit .300 nine years straight. Most people don’t do that. Instead of being bitter about it, I decided I was going to take the time God gave me to better my knowledge for my kids. So I know that’s starting to translate with my kids and the people I train. I talked to a couple of people here at the winter meetings about jobs. I didn’t realize how much respect I had earned as a player.”

“Hitting a baseball is something I had a gift at. I broke my wrist in 1997 and that was the most miserable season that I had. I had a bad season. That was the first bad season I had, and I didn’t understand how to deal with failure at the plate. It helped me grow into a better hitter. Never experiencing a failure like that was difficult.”

“I had a gift and I couldn’t use it. Now I want to pass it on. What’s a gift if you can’t pass it on? That’s why I understand gifts. That’s where my heart and conviction are now.”

Old Buffaloes club closes

The association of former Kintetsu Buffaloes players will cease activities, the organization’s president, Hall of Fame pitcher Keishi Suzuki announced Saturday.

“It’s sad, but we decided to bring it to a close,” Suzuki said. “There’s no one who can become a new member.”

“The team no longer exists. We persisted thinking we could accomplish something, but we’ve reached our limit.”

The Buffaloes, founded ahead of the 1950 season when Japan’s league expanded and split into the Central and Pacific leagues. The club ceased to exist after the 2004 season when it was merged into the PL rival Orix BlueWave. That merger, announced and essentially approved without the consent of the players sparked NPB’s only players strike, expansion, and wide-ranging changes to the business of baseball in Japan.

The only former Buffaloes players still active are Hisashi Iwakuma, who is joining the Yomiuri Giants from the Seattle Mariners this season, and two players now with the CL’s Yakult Swallows, pitcher Kazuki Kondo and outfielder-first baseman Tomotaka Sakaguchi.

At the time the Buffaloes folded, they were the only one of NPB teams at the time never to have won the Japan Series.