Tuffy Rhodes thought he knew baseball. He had to go to the other side of the world, however, to truly learn about the game and what it meant to be the best professional baseball player he could be.
Rhodes, a former third-round pick of the Houston Astros, struggled to find consistency in the Major Leagues during parts of six seasons with four different organizations in the early 1990s. It wasn’t until he went to play in Japan in 1996 that he developed an understanding of the game, one that would not only help him realize his potential but also allow him to become one of the greatest players in Nippon Pro Baseball [NPB] history.
The Ohio native, who longed to play for the Reds while growing up in Cincinnati, spent 13 seasons playing in the Japanese Central and Pacific Leagues, reaching legendary status for his homerun prowess and his staying power. He became the first foreign-born player [28th overall] to drive in 1,000 runs in Japan and the first foreign-born player to reach 3,000 total bases. His 464 career homers is 13th all-time in the NPB while his 1,292 RBIs place him 16th.
Rhodes, whose given name is Karl, was the Pacific League MVP in 2001. He equaled the legendary Sadaharu Oh’s then single-season mark for homers  while driving in 131 for the Kintetsu Buffaloes. Rhodes was an eight-time All-Star and led the league in homers four times before retiring following the 2009 season.
He had offers to play for Major League clubs during his historic run in Japan but a better salary in the NPB and no guarantee of playing time kept him from coming back to America. While he would have liked to have enjoyed such success in the United States, he is happy about his career.
“I did not regret going to Japan,” Rhodes, 52, said. “The only regret I have is that I wished I was a student of the game in America like I was in Japan. Japanese baseball changed my life.”
“I used to watch Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg and Mark Grace, a lot of good players do it and I just didn’t do it.”
ROOTING FOR THE REDLEGS AND HEADING TO HOUSTON
Rhodes, who acquired his nickname as a 6-year-old after he was hit in the face with a ball and didn’t cry, hence Tuffy, became a Reds fan early. His mom took him to games at Riverfront Stadium and he says he “fell in love with the Big Red Machine”.
He went to the same high school as Pete Rose [Western Hills] and his favorite player was Ken Griffey, Sr.
“Ken Griffey, Sr. was a left-handed outfielder who ran fast and I thought my game reminded me of his when I was growing up,” Rhodes said. “I loved them all [the Reds], though. I just fell in love with that team. My mom took me to games and we’d have tickets in the nosebleeds and that changed my life at Riverfront. Even though they were miles away, I felt like I was right on the field.”
Rhodes’ dream was to play for his hometown team and he said scouts from the Reds were at his games two or three times a week. He also wanted to play collegiately for Florida State because of the better weather in the south. The draft, however, superseded all of those plans. Rhodes felt as if he was going to be Cincinnati’s third-round selection in the 1986 First-Year Player Draft but it didn’t work out that way.
Houston selected him with the 68th pick [13th in the third round], four slots ahead of the Reds, who grabbed Reggie Jefferson. Rhodes was hitting .512 and was 9-2 as a pitcher for his high school team at the time of the draft. The Astros immediately signed him and sent the 17-year-old to the Gulf Coast League where, after a bumpy start, he finished with a .293 batting average, 22 RBI and 14 stolen bases in 62 games.
“Sarasota [in the GCL] was frightening,” Rhodes said. “I called home collect every day for the first month. My mom said you have to stop calling. I was sad and lonely. It was difficult because I was switching from aluminum to wood bats. Eventually I got the hang of it and ended up hitting .293 but I didn’t get any hits my first 25 or 30 at-bats, just walks and fielder’s choices.”
Rhodes spent 1987 in with Asheville of the Class-A South Atlantic League, hitting .252 with 50 RBIs while finishing 10th in the league with 43 steals as the Tourists won a division title. He moved up to Osceola of the High-A Florida State League the following season. He led the circuit with 65 stolen bases and was second in on-base percentage [.391] as his team won another division title.
SARASOTA, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Tuffy Rhodes of the Cincinnati Reds during photo day at Ed Smith Stadium on February 24, 2006 in Sarasota, Florida. (Photo by Robbie Rogers/MLB via Getty Images)
While Rhodes moved up each of the next two seasons to Double-A, Triple-A and finally the Major Leagues, he had begun to level off. He stole only 18 bases for Columbus of the Southern League in 1989 and had 24 steals for Tucson of the Pacific Coast League in 1990 when Houston called him up in early August. He popped out and struck out in the first two at-bats of his Aug. 7 debut against San Francisco but singled to center in his third plate appearance off Steve Bedrosian.
“I got called up and my first game was in the Astrodome against the Giants,” Rhodes said. “It was kind of like an out of body experience. You’re there but you’re not there. They had the rodeo there [at the Astrodome] so the turf wasn’t great. We would go on the road for two or three weeks because of the rodeo and the place smelled like manure everywhere. Defensively, the lights were not the best and the turf was rough.”
Rhodes had a good first week, though, going 5-for-13 [.385], which included his first career homer, a fourth-inning shot off Mike Bielecki at Wrigley Field on Aug. 15. He ultimately appeared in 38 games and finished the season hitting .244 with three RBI and four stolen bases.
Though he had a successful two months to begin his Major League career he couldn’t sustain that level of play. He bounced between Tucson and Houston in 1991 and ’92 and was released by Houston early in 1993. He signed with Kansas City and proceeded to hit .318 with 23 homers in 88 games for Omaha in the PCL before getting traded to the Cubs at the end of July. Rhodes hit .320 and added seven more homers for Iowa [PCL] before getting a 15-game season-ending stretch in Chicago, during which he hit .288 with three more homers.
“I blame myself,” Rhodes said. “I didn’t do what I needed to do to stay in the Major Leagues. I did what I needed to do to get there but my work ethic should have been better. I can only blame myself. I had ample opportunities to make it and be successful, I just didn’t put in the extra work. I worked hard but I didn’t work extra hard.
“I had teammates who were the same age, like Jeff Bagwell. I watched him work hard, lift weights, take extra BP after practice. He just outworked everybody. I guess you can say it was immaturity. At the same time, I had people to work with if I wanted to.”
TAKAOKA, JAPAN - JUNE 03: Tuffy Rhodes poses for photographes during a press conference announcing to join the Toyama Sunderbirds at Takaoka City Hall on June 3, 2015 in Takaoka, Toyama, Japan. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
TAKING DOC DEEP AND HEADING EAST, VERY FAR EAST
Rhodes’ encouraging ending to the 1993 got an even further lift on Opening Day 1994 when he made Major League history by becoming the first player ever to open the season with home runs in his first three at-bats. That he did it against New York’s Dwight Gooden on that April 4 afternoon at Wrigley Field made it more special. He finished that day with three RBIs and four hits and would finish that series 7-for-11, appearing, briefly, to have made the Royals and the Astros look foolish for letting him go.
He was hitting .313 at the end of April and was solid through most of May before settling into mediocrity. Rhodes hit only five more homers after Opening Day. He finished with a career-high 19 RBIs in 269 at-bats and ended the season batting .234. He began the following season with Chicago but was plucked off waivers by the Red Sox in May.
Rhodes stuck with the Red Sox for a month, going 2-for-25 before he was sent to Pawtucket of the Triple-A International League. While he hit .285 with 10 homers and 43 RBIs for the PawSox he was close to walking away from baseball.
“I had almost had enough,” Rhodes said. “I was going to be a fireman. A lot of guys back home in Cincinnati became firemen. Then my agent called me and said I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that a team wants you to play every day. The bad news is that team is in Japan. I said where do I sign?”
Rhodes embraced Japan and the country’s approach to baseball when he went there for the 1996 season. He would spend the next eight seasons with Kintetsu of the Japanese Pacific League, making his presence felt immediately. He hit .293 with 27 homers and 97 RBI that first season. Rhodes scored 80 runs, finishing second in the league to Ichiro Suzuki. He also finished second in hits [again to Ichiro], doubles and RBIs.
“My first month was hard,” Rhodes said. “There are two months of spring training. Baseball was the toughest thing. The adjustment on the field was more difficult because off the field life wasn’t that hard. The food was incredible and I had two interpreters who took me to where the Americans hung out.
“Baseball was the hard part. It’s easier to come here to play baseball than it is to go there. We play checkers here; they play chess. We keep baseball simple here. Over there, you couldn’t get a fastball. You had bases loaded, no one out and the pitcher threw me six straight forkballs. I had never witnessed that kind of baseball before. That’s why I became a student of the game.”
Chicago Cubs Karl Tuffy Rhodes (25) in action, at bat vs St. Louis Cardinals. Chicago, IL 8/10/1994 Credit: Stephen Green (Photo by Stephen Green /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) (Set Number: X46713 TK1 R5 F11 )
Rhodes said he had an epiphany in one night in June when he woke up and suddenly realized what he had to do. He had figured out an approach. He said that if he were playing with more popular teams he would have faced a great deal more pressure because of the popularity of those teams. Kintetsu, he said, was more akin to a small-market team in the States so when he began the season hitting around .240 he was not benched or booed.
“I just popped up and said to myself this is how they play in Japan,” Rhodes said. “I woke up one night out of the blue in Kobe thinking this is how they play baseball. The next day I’m up to bat, lefty on lefty, no one on with a 3-0 count and I looked for a curve and got it. I crushed it, hit it 500 feet. I said, okay, I’m ready to play baseball in Japan. I was also blessed that my coach still gave me a chance. If I was playing for Tokyo or Hanshin it would have been tough.
“I figured it out and my work ethic got better and better. My batting practice got better and better. I knew I could play the game of baseball well, I just had to give it everything I had. I used to watch Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg and Mark Grace, a lot of good players do it and I just didn’t do it. I thought I want to play over here as long as I can but it didn’t even cross my mind that it would be 13 or 14 years. I really became a student of the game and that helped a lot.”
Rhodes, like many foreign-born players in Japan, also had to learn to accept some cultural differences and not take offense to them. For example, the Japanese fans and media would often refer to foreign-born players as “the help” but meant no disrespect by it. That’s just how it translated. Rhodes handled such cases with aplomb and was quickly on his way to becoming one of the NPB’s most dominant players.
BECOMING A NPB SUPERSTAR
Rhodes followed up his big 1996 season with another strong effort in ’97, hitting .307 with 22 homers and 102 RBIs. He was among the league leaders in several offensive categories and was named to the Pacific League’s Best Nine Squad. Rhodes wasn’t as productive in 1998, only driving in 70 runs though he did hit 22 homers.
Beginning in 1999, though, Rhodes would become one of the most feared sluggers in Japan. He would hit 40 or more homers in seven of his next nine seasons, including hitting 50 twice – 55 in 2001 and 51 in 2003. His 2001 season, which also saw him drive in 131 runs and hit .327. He also set a Pacific League record for runs , all of which earned him an MVP Award. It also put Rhodes in the spotlight because he was threatening Oh’s long-time single-season home run record of 55.
Kintetsu was facing the Daiei Hawks, managed by Oh, in a late-season matchup. Hawks pitchers, however, never gave Rhodes the chance to break the record, pitching around him and walking him virtually the entire series.
Tuffy Rhodes finished his NPB career with 464 home runs and 1,269 RBIs. | KYODO
“Oh had wished me luck before the series,” Rhodes said. “We signed baseballs, talked and shook hands and that was it. The first time I got to the plate, the catcher said to me he was sorry about what was going on. By my third at-bat I just threw my bat at the ball and popped it up to left. I had another chance to break it in Chiba. The pitcher threw me a 3-1 fastball down the middle and I hit it to the fence so I had another couple of games to do it.”
Wladimir Balentien, another foreign-born player [Curacao], would ultimately break Oh’s mark, hitting 60 home runs in 2013.
Seasons of 46, 51 and 45 homers followed for Rhodes, though, the last of which came after he signed a big free-agent deal with Yomiuri. He tied for the Central League lead in homers in 2004 – becoming only the second player ever to lead both leagues – and was once again named to the Best Nine Squad but his the excitement surrounding his success wouldn’t last long.
Rhodes played most of 2005 and had 27 homers and 70 RBIs through 101 games when he injured his right rotator cuff while diving for a ball. The surgery to repair the damage would cost him the rest of the season. He would sit out all of 2006 though Cincinnati did extend him a spring training invite.
“The Reds called me to come to Spring Training,” said Rhodes, who was released by Cincinnati after struggling that spring. “I was released and I figured that was a great run for me. In 2007, though, they called me to come back to Japan.”
Rhodes signed with Orix and returned to the Japanese Pacific League, where he would hit 104 homers over the next three seasons. He cracked the 1,000-RBI plateau in April of 2007 to become the third-quickest player in NPB history to hit that mark. He set several other marks that summer, including becoming the first foreign-born player to reach 3,000 total bases and the first foreigner [14th overall] to reach 400 homers.
The 2009 season, which would be Rhodes’ last, also saw him continue to produce despite a broken hand that cost him much of the year. Still, Rhodes finished with 22 homers and 62 RBIs in 84 games, becoming the fastest player to reach 3,500 total bases along the way.
“The year I broke my hand, I was hit by a pitch, I had an offer to come back for two more years,” Rhodes said. “But I promised my son when he got to high school, I would retire. When I got the offer and I told him, his face just dropped like I had shot him. I could have easily gotten to 500 homers and 2,000 hits, though. That was one thing I wanted to do the most.”
The only question remaining regarding Rhodes’ career in Japan is whether he will ever get inducted into the NPB Hall-of-Fame. So far, Japanese writers have been reluctant to include the foreign-born Rhodes.
“It bugs me a little bit but nothing surprises me,” he said.
Rhodes is a full-time retiree now. He said he made “a whole lot of money” in Japan, saving most of it. He remains a die-hard Reds fan, though he follows the Astros as well, and loves everything Ohio [except the Cleveland Browns because he is a Bengals fan].
While Rhodes success on the diamond wasn’t as traditional as that experienced by some, he’s happy with the way it all turned out. He learned about the game and himself in ways he wouldn’t have thought possible.
“Life takes us on different paths and mine was through the Far East,” he said. “I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.”