Tag Archives: Sadaharu Oh

Dennis Sarfate in Japan

Dennis Sarfate did more than just blossom as a baseball player in Japan, he turned his life around.

On Saturday, the SoftBank Hawks right-hander announced on his Facebook page that he is headed for a career-ending hip-replacement surgery. He achieved great things in Japan, won awards, set records and earned the respect of Japanese people in the game–which is no easy accomplishment.

But he is more than that.

Sarfate once said how after making it to the majors, he had everything he’d wanted., but despite a beautiful loving wife and a dream job, he was extremely unhappy and admitted he went through a time when he didn’t want to live.

Coming to Japan, he said, coincided with his finding his Christian faith, and this changed him. He learned as I assume most people do at some point, that life isn’t about you, but what you can do for others, what you can build with others.

When Sarfate arrived, he thought he was at the end. It turned out to be another beginning.

Like a lot of hard-throwing imported pitchers, his team expected him to blow fastballs past hitters. But Japanese baseball is more about execution than sheer physical strength, and Sarfate took that side to heart, and like a lot of others who have come here and had success, he embraced the opportunity to learn and grow.

He rediscovered his curveball, mastered throwing it for strikes, learned to command a splitter.

Sarfate will talk about how others have changed him, his wife, his father-in-law, a pastor who influenced his spirituality, his teammates. One of those was catcher Toru Hosokawa, another former Seibu Lion, whom he worked with during his first three seasons in Fukuoka with the Hawks.

Hosokawa was always challenging him, making him be the best version of the pitcher he could be. Sarfate doesn’t say it, but his teammates tend to say the same about him. In Japan where complex is often misconstrued to be a synonym for quality, Sarfate helped other Hawks pitchers identify those things they needed to simplify their thought process on the mound.

He spent his first two seasons in Hiroshima pitching for the Carp, and I rarely had a chance to speak with him until 2013, when he pitched for the Seibu Lions, who play west of Tokyo, just across the border in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture.

I found him to be straight forward and someone who will go out of his way to help others. He has always been happy to share his insight into Japan’s game and how he fit into it, and where he didn’t:”They don’t let me attend meetings.”

My favorite memory of Sarfate came on a scorching afternoon in Chiba, before a day game. I saw him and asked for yet another interview for the Japan Weekly Baseball Podcast, where he probably should be listed on the credits as a guest star considering the number of times he consented to be interviewed by John E. Gibson and myself.

He said he’d do it after he finished practicing, I had to do triple duty that morning, file a story on Masahiro Tanaka’s start for the New York Yankees, cover the Marines-Hawks game and grab an interview for our podcast that weekend.

I tried to finish my Tanaka story while watching the field to see when Sarfate was finished practicing so I could catch him. But as I concentrated more on the story, I focused less on the field. When I realized I had blown it, I went out to look for Sarfate against hope I might still catch him.

Just as I came out, I saw him disappear into the visiting locker room at what is now known as Zozo Marine Stadium. Then to my surprise, he came out, explaining he needed more water. He’d been getting dehydrated waiting in the sun for me to come out and start the interview. It was a small thing, but it told me a lot.

In 2017, Sarfate set Japan’s single-season save record, was named the Pacific League and Japan Series MVP and was awarded the Matsutaro Shoriki Award, an honor intended for the person who contributes the most to Japanese pro baseball.

The Shoriki Award is voted not by writers like most of Japan’s awards, but by a small panel commissioned by the award’s sponsor, the Yomiuri Shimbun. Non-Japanese had won it–the award was first created to honor Sadaharu Oh, a citizen of Taiwan, for hitting more home runs in Japan than Hank Aaron did in the majors.

Although Oh’s father was from China, he was born in Japan, and was always considered a domestic player. No imported player had ever won the Shoriki Award. In fact, in 2001, when Tuffy Rhodes tied Oh’s single-season home run record of 55, he would have been a perfect choice to win the award. He had the kind of season that went with that award.

Rhodes won the PL pennant with the Kintetsu Buffaloes and had learned to speak Japanese, and honored the game with his work ethic. He could be fiery, but he respected Japan’s game. But instead of Rhodes, the Shoriki voters opted not to select an imported player. Perhaps it was because Rhodes is black. I don’t know. But for the next 15 years, an award that had often gone to players, became the automatic award given to the Japan Series champion’s manager.

There were exceptions. In 2003, both Japan Series skippers earned a joint award. In 2006, Nippon Ham Fighters manager Trey Hillman was passed over in favor of Japan’s WBC skipper Sadaharu Oh. In 2012, Yomiuri Giants catcher Shinnosuke Abe was named in tandem with his manager, Tatsunori Hara.

But basically, it was for managers, until Sarfate. He set a record, he won a pennant, he was the league’s MVP, and then in Game 6 of the Japan Series against the DeNA BayStars, he came out in relief in a losing effort.

After 66 regular-season games and 54 saves, another three games and two saves in the playoffs, and two games and two saves in the series, Sarfate came out again.

With the Hawks trailing by a run, Sarfate worked a scoreless ninth. He worked two more innings until SoftBank won on a walk-off in the 11th to clinch the championship. With the exception of a lack of bloodshed, it was a samurai drama come to life, where the hero, spent and exhausted, summons every drop of strength to survive and conquer.

Maybe that was what it took. Because when the Shoriki Award committee, chaired now by Oh, the SoftBank Hawks chairman, they broke with precedent.

I would like to say it is because times have changed, and I suppose they have. Few players have had heroic finishes like Sarfate’s but I also have to think that the respect he earned from his teammates and those in Japan’s game was also a key.

Horiuchi, Giants’ worst manager ever, has a cow

Tsuneo Horiuchi, the worst manager in the history of Japan’s oldest existing pro baseball team, the Yomiuri Giants, blew his top Thursday night when the team sent their top pinch-runner, Daiki Masuda to the mound to get two outs in an 11-0 blowout loss to the Hanshin Tigers.

Horiuchi, the 72-year-old former ace, managed the Giants in 2004 and 2005. His .480 winning percentage over 284 games makes him the only skipper on the club’s long history with a sub .500 record.

The current skipper, Tatsunori Hara, has won eight pennants in 13 seasons, tied for second in team history and next year will have more managing wins than any other Giants manager.

On his official blog, Horiuchi wrote a post called “You must not do this.”

“Daiki Masuda took the mound. This must not be done. The Giants are not that kind of team.”

“This team is leading the league. It is not permissible for a strong team to do this. I wonder what the opposing team must think. They must think we are taking them lightly.”

“When Masuda took the mound, I turned my TV off. I couldn’t stand to watch any more.”

–former Giants ace and manager Tsuneo Horiuchi in his official blog

Horiuchi is a wonderful personable guy, but old farts disease can strike anyone.

Emergency pitchers to save the bullpen are never needed in Japan, because games only go 12 innings, this year 10 because of the coronavirus, and teams have 29 active players to choose their 25 game-day players (this year 31 and 26). Because of that, teams have between three to five starting pitchers who are active, but not taking up space on the game-day roster.

Take that, and a day off every week and the ability to call up minor leaguers an unlimited number of times with no chance of them running out of options, and voila, no emergency pitchers.

Unlike most weeks, the Giants don’t have Monday off, and were using Thursday as a bullpen day, so they were pretty stretched out and in a game with virtually no chance of winning. Masuda, a former high school pitcher, walked one batter and recorded two outs against the heart of the Hanshin Tigers lineup at the end of a game the Giants had virtually no chance of winning.

It was a creative adaptation to circumstances by a manager who has revolutionized an organization by organizing his team along the lines of a meritocracy–as it had once been in the days under legendary skipper Tetsuharu Kawakami.

Horiuchi turned pro out of high school under Kawakami and earned a reputation as a great, great player, but also a kind of selfish brat.

In a famous incident, described by Sadaharu Oh in his autobiography “A Zen Way of Baseball,” Horiuchi was talking loudly on the phone at an inn while his teammates were trying to sleep. Horiuchi was so annoying that even Oh, the Giants’ calm, stoic superstar slugger, had enough and punched him out.

The Yomiuri’s ownership pushed Kawakami out in 1974 to make way for Shigeo Nagashima, who was Japan’s most popular player ever but utterly unprepared to manage. That move signaled an organizational change that put popularity on an even footing with quality.

As a player Hara was a popular star who was hyped as the next Nagashima. Hara was a very good player who was hyped excessively. Hara considered Nagashima a mentor, but as a manager, but other than an occasional attempt to explain something through a catchy but nonsensical phrase, Hara was little like Nagashima as a manger.

Hara broke with tradition and benched stars so that unheralded fringe players could contribute. This was big because for nearly 10 years the Giants had sucked up most of Japan’s free-agent talent, and signing old big-name guys had made them SLOW and a poor defensive team. Hara cultivated youngsters who produced on the farm whether anyone had heard of them or not.

When Horiuchi replaced Hara for two seasons from 2004 because Hara quit over then-Giants owner Tsuneo Watanabe’s bizarre Steinbrenner-like behavior, the team turned into a rudderless mob. It was ugly. Horiuchi attacked his players and got into a pissing match with popular but unmotivated slugger Kazuhiro Kiyohara, resulting in the manager being booed by the fans at Tokyo Dome.

It was ugly.

If the Onion were writing this story, the headline would read, “Lousy manager angry former team looks this bad without him in charge.”

WBC postponed again

The news out of the United States on Monday was that Major League Baseball has put the 2021 World Baseball Classic on hold due to the uncertainty regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Baseball America reported that MLB will look to schedule it in 2023.

No nation with the exception of perhaps Cuba places as much emphasis on the tournament as two-time champion Japan, but Nippon Professional Baseball was already interested in resolving the problem of a WBC next March, now that the Olympics have ostensibly been pushed into a 2021 time slot.

And though the WBC is a big deal in Japan, it is nothing compared to the Olympics, where Japan has repeatedly crashed and burned since pros were allowed to play in 2000. Being able to host the 2020 Olympics meant Japan could have another shot at a gold medal.

Japanese companies may line up to get a piece of the WBC sponsorship pie, but with a chance to play for an Olympic gold medal at home, NPB had to lay down a tarp to keep sponsors’ drool from staining the carpet.

Before the reality of the coronavirus was understood, NPB’s season was supposed to start on March 20, a week earlier than usual, take a three-week break for the Olympics, and finish two weeks late. When the International Olympic Committee informed Japan that there would be no Olympics this year, so that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could announce that he alone made the decision for the good of the world, NPB instantly began squawking about how the 2021 WBC would be a hindrance to its Olympic preparations.

So while Japan loves its WBC, losing it in 2021 is no big deal, especially if it is only postponed until 2023 as seems possible.

A postponement, as the title suggests, would be the tournament’s second, Japan having won the inaugural 2006 event and the second edition in 2009 after the first tournament was delayed a year due to organizing hassles, many related to Japan.

Jim Small, then the President of MLB Japan was the point man in negotiating Japan’s participation, but NPB needed nudging, and frankly lacked the competence to act in a timely fashion.

There are some who believe a word from Sadaharu Oh, then the manager of the Daiei Hawks, pushed Japanese baseball into taking a chance on the idea.

Although Oh said it wasn’t his doing, he admitted to being a proponent of the tournament while many suits in NPB were against it.

“There are a lot of conservative people in the game, and they were against change,” Oh said in November 2017. “But to grow the game, you need to take some chances. Those people eventually saw the light.”

In addition to those conservative elements, there was also the problem that NPB lacked competency. Because English is a necessity for international business, it’s common for people of minimal competence to be promoted to positions of responsibility simply because of their English proficiency. There are a lot of people in Japanese baseball who are both extremely competent in their jobs and good at English, but that is not always the case.

In the case of the WBC, much of the heavy lifting was done by a skilled speaker of English who is something of a wild card. Although possessed with an excellent memory and knowledge of the game, he is prone to say things that are not true, and is really no administrator.

This became really clear in 2005. Although Japan agreed to take part in the first WBC, NPB’s union had not been notified of it. When asked about the delay, secretary general at the time, Kazuo Hasegawa, claimed his organization had only signed a document “expressing interest.” It would be no exaggeration to say that every regular baseball writer in Japan knew where that story originated from.

Less than a year after the union’s first strike had forced NPB into abandoning its contraction plans in the summer of 2004, the union was surprised to learn that the owners had agreed to take part in the WBC without consulting the players.

Although the tournament was managed jointly by MLB and its union, Small said that the organizers made a conscious decision not to reach out to Japan’s union despite NPB’s incompetence and lack of leadership that brought on the 2004 labor crisis.

“We didn’t want to overstep,” Small said during the contentious summer of 2005. “We didn’t want to step on NPB’s toes. But in retrospect, we probably should have brought them into the discussion earlier.”

True colors

There is no mistaking that when the Japanese baseball world considers MLB, it generally sees things worth emulating. Owners see the profits, fans see the physical strength and splendid new ballparks, players see the elite working conditions and competition. Yet, that envy, is often tinted by the kind of racial narcissism that sees Japan’s extra practice and the dedication to small ball as a kind of purity that can rarely be fathomed by outsiders.

Having said that, there are areas where Japan is way ahead of the United States, and professional baseball’s response to the coronavirus illuminates that gap.

Taking a cue from Donald Trump, MLB has been leaking a steady stream of mixed messages, while exploiting the downside of the coronavirus to incite division in the labor force — moving toward a demand that the players take pay cuts and get back to work despite the risks.

No players in NPB have had their salaries docked, all are expected to take part in practice while social distancing.

While the Japanese government was going full steam toward opening the Tokyo Olympics on July 24 until the IOC pulled the plug, NPB, too, was setting new Opening Days for when it would ostensibly be safe to play before crowds. Unlike the United States, no TV network in Japan was proclaiming concern for the virus a hoax, nor did the prime minister ever downplay it as a threat.

Since the Olympics were put in stasis, Japan declared a state of emergency, and NPB began reciting the advice of medical experts, saying it was too early to say when the season would start. Rather than a sense that the health crisis will be accompanied by Ameican-style class warfare, Japanese baseball has remained, well Japanese.

While Japan’s response to the coronavirus has been mediocre, it has been far better than the United States’ effort. And while people in both countries may be looking toward baseball for a sense of optimism, at least baseball in Japan is moving forward toward doing that exactly that — without the extra baggage that MLB is bringing to the table.

Another argument for Rhodes

Rhodes won one MVP award, hit 464 home runs, drove in 1,269, scored 1,000, stole 87 bases. He led his league in home runs four times, in runs twice and in RBIs three times. He won seven Best Nine Awards but no Gold Gloves.

In a recent post, I used career value to compare Rhodes to other candidates and players. This time I’m going to look at career accomplishments, his honors, career totals and individual titles.

How do his accomplishments match up against the all-time greats?

Pretty well.

Rhodes is 13th in NPB career home runs. How many of the 20 players with 400-plus home runs are in the Hall of Fame?

One is active, one is not yet eligible, four (Rhodes, Hiroki Kokubo, Takeshi Yamasaki and Norihiro Nakamura) are currently on the players ballot, one (Koichi Tabuchi) is on the experts ballot. One (Kazuhiro Kiyohara) is not on the ballot because of his drug conviction, while Masahiro Doi somehow slipped through the cracks. The other 11 are all in.

Rhodes is 21st all-time in RBIs. How many of the 24 with 1,200-plus are in the Hall?

Thirteen are currently in the Hall, while four others have gotten past the players division without being elected — one of whom is now on the experts ballot. Two are not yet eligible, while five are currently on the players ballot: Rhodes, Nakamura, Kokubo, Yamasaki and Alex Ramirez.

Rhodes is 24th in runs scored. Of the 23 players with more runs, how many are in the Hall?

One, Michihiro Ogasawara, is not yet eligible, while three have been passed over. Rhodes and Takuro Ishii are on the players ballot, while Isao Shibata is on the experts ballot. Sixteen of the 24 are in.

Rhodes is a four-time home run champ. How many three-time winners are in?

Five of the 11 three-time champs are in, while two of the remaining six are on the experts ballot. Koji Yamamoto is the other four-time champ and he is in. Ever eligible player with five or more home run titles is in the Hall.

Nine players who have been eligible for Hall of Fame induction have led their league in RBIs exactly three times like Rhodes.

In addition to Rhodes, two are on the experts ballot, while one has been passed over. Five are currently in the Hall of Fame.

Tuffy was the Pacific League’s 2001 MVP. How many on the players division ballot had more?

Three. In addition to Rhodes, Kenji Jojima won one, and Alex Ramirez won two. The only former two-time MVP who isn’t in the Hall of Fame is Yutaka Enatsu, who was busted for drugs. That’s a good sign for Ramirez as well as future candidates Yu Darvish, Nobuhiko Matsunaka and Michihiro Ogasawara. One MVP award is just another accomplishment.

Rhodes won seven Best Nine Awards.

Six of the 13 seven-time winners are in the Hall. Two are on the experts ballot. Four have been passed over.

Rhodes led his league in an offensive category 18 times. How many of the 19 players who have led in 16 or more categories are in the Hall?

So far, 19 players have done this. Two, Nobuhiko Matsunaka (17) and Ichiro Suzuki (1.5 gazillion), are not yet eligible. Rhodes is the only player who has ever been eligible for the Hall of Fame who has yet to be elected.

Adjusting for career length

Because Rhodes played only 14 seasons, it might be worth some time comparing him to what each of Japan’s best players produced in the 14-season span in which he had the most plate appearances. Rhodes had 7,340 career plate appearances. The most of any player in any 14-year stretch was Tomoaki Kanemoto’s 8,470 so we’re talking about a reasonably level playing field.

After Kazuyoshi Tatsunami was elected to the Hall a year ago, the next two position players ranked in order of the percentage of ballots they were on, were shortstops Masahiro Kawai and Shinya Miyamoto. During their best 14 seasons, the pair’s combined win shares for those 28 seasons: 290.8. Rhodes’ total for his Japan career was 298.

Both Kawai and Miyamoto were good players, and Miyamoto was a good player for a long, long time. But anyone who thinks they deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, while Tuffy Rhodes doesn’t, needs to account for his or her lack of judgement.

In that group, Rhodes ranks 18th in win shares, third in home runs with 406 behind Sadaharu Oh’s 653 and Katsuya Nomura’s 466, eighth in RBIs with 1,275, 10th in runs scored, ninth in walks.

Rhodes never won a Golden Glove, but he did play center field for most of his career in Japan and few of the players who rank ahead of him had a ton of defensive value with the exception of Nomura.

1 of Japan’s unwritten rules

Yudai Ono led Japan’s Central League in earned run average this season, passing Hiroshima’s Kris Johnson on Monday in his final start, when he was pulled after not allowing a base runner over 3-1/3 scoreless innings.

The issue

The game was a meaningless one for the Dragons, but not for their opponents, the Hanshin Tigers, who needed to win in order to advance to the playoffs at the expense of the Hiroshima Carp.

By pulling an effective starter, the Dragons reduced their ability to compete and make the Tigers earn the win, but guaranteed Ono would lead the league in ERA. The Tigers went on to win 3-0, scoring seconds after Ono left the mound.

Both the Dragons and Carp had something to gain from a situation if Ono did not allow an earned run over 3-1/3 innings and the Tigers won the game. That doesn’t mean there was an agreement, tacit or otherwise, to defraud the Carp, but such things happen in sports when teams pursue their selfish interests.

Kris Johnson weighed in on Twitter, expressing shock that gambling was going on in a casino. But it’s very typical behavior in Japanese society, where social rules give precedence to the workgroup over the law.

Japan rules

Team sports often demand an individual sacrifice individual gain for the greater good of the team. That means you don’t swing for the fences in an effort to win the home run title on a 3-2 pitch out of the strike zone if taking that pitch will force in a run and win your team a game.

I’ve written this before but in Japan, teams are also expected to generate rewards for team members in helping them pursue individual accomplishments. This is why pitcher Satoru Kanemura had a meltdown in 2006 when Nippon Ham Fighters manager Trey Hillman pulled him in the fifth inning of what would be his last start of the season, leaving him just one win shy of reaching double digits in wins.

Kanemura believed the team owed him a chance to win 10 games, and Hillman was violating that contract. He believed that because teams bend over backward to do stupid things in order to block opponents from beating their players to individual titles.

The Seibu Lions once threw intentional wild pitches with Lotte’s Makoto Kosaka on first base so he wouldn’t steal second and beat Kazuo Matsui for the Pacific League stolen base crown. Intentional walks are common. The Yomiuri Giants in 1985 and later the Daiei Hawks in 2001 and 2002 famously refused to challenge opposing hitters who were in danger of threatening the single-season home run record of their manager, managerSadaharu Oh.

Oh himself has called that sort of behavior distasteful because he was a fierce competitor and is a gentleman. But the culture here expects it.

Had Ono needed a win to lead the league in wins, there is no chance he would have come out early.

Players expect this behavior, fans expect this behavior. That’s the way it is. I don’t like it, but the regular season is 143 games long. I suppose if a few games here and there are marginally tainted because stupid stuff happens, I can live with it.

It’s not like six or seven teams here are tanking because spending less is more profitable.

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.”