No Cardinals stuff today–a big baseball story has just broken. On March 20, a hitter more accomplished than Ichiro, as terrifying as Hideki Matsui, as popular as Daisuke Matsuzaka after his WBC hero turn, retired at the age of 37. He had become an unlikely celebrity, a superstar after an undistinguished start to his pro career, but after an ignominious ending it was all over–all 373 home runs of it.
Would it help if I said he hit 360 of those in Japan?
Yes, the Tuffy Rhodes experiment is over in Cincinnati, and in his own words: “I’m going to go home and be a father. That’s it.”
The Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes story begins in the third round of the 1986 draft, with his selection out of Western Hills High by the Houston Astros. He signed quick enough to play the same year, hitting .293/.385/.324 in the Gulf Coast League. At 18, he stole 14 bases in 62 games, and exhibited good plate discipline, exhibited by a 33:32 K:BB ratio, but he showed no power at all; the main draw was his speed on defense and on the basepaths.
At 19 he was sent up to Asheville of the low-A Sally League for his first taste of full-season ball. He boosted his power, but it was, to this, point deck chairs on a really, really weak Titanic–his Isolated Power rose to a still-anemic .080 from .031. The speedster had stolen 43 bases, but his batting average fell to .252. There was no reason to believe he had any particular ability hidden behind that mediocre line; he’d only hit 16 doubles, so home run power–such as that of teammates Ed Whited and Mike Simms, who had combined for 67 home runs–didn’t seem forthcoming. And even if it did, the Astros had to be more intrigued by their first round draft pick, a catcher who signed and, the very same year, hit 375/.472/.597 with 31 stolen bases in his 64 games with the club. Yes, Craig Biggio certainly did seem like a player on the fast track.
Still 20 in 1988, he was sent up yet another level despite having yet to thrive anywhere. The Astros moved him to Osceola, in the hi-A Florida State League. There he stole 64 bases and even got his average back up to .283, but both of those play second fiddle to what has to be one of the greatest power outages this side of Amish country. In 452 at-bats–132 games–Tuffy managed 7 extra-base hits. Seven! Four doubles, two triples, one homer. His plate discipline remained outstanding–81 walks to only 53 strikeouts–but a guy whose line in the low minors is .283/.395/.308 is going to get the bat knocked out of his hands in the upper levels.
Speaking of those upper levels, the Astros saw fit to move him up again in 1989, apparently not worried about their speedy leadoff type’s .025 isolated power. In his first taste of the high minors, the AA Southern League, his batting average fell back to .258, but he nearly quintupled his XBH output… to 34. In AAA Tuscon for the next season, the 22-year-old Rhodes continued to gain power, though it still wasn’t much to look at: a .418 slugging percentage. The difference, this time, was that the Astros didn’t have anything better. Eric Anthony, their young opening day starter in left field, had only managed a .192/.279/.351 line. (He’d be most useful to the Astros, eventually, by being sent to the Mariners in exchange for a pitcher by the name of Mike Hampton.) On August 6, their starter out in left was diminuitive utility-man Casey Candaele; on August 7, it was Tuffy Rhodes. He went 1-3 with a strikeout and a run scored, and from there on out he was their starter. In his 36 game trial, he went .244/.340/.372, stealing four bases and hitting one homer.
In 1991, the Astros’ outfield was young and talented; on opening day rookie Luis Gonzalez started in left, recently-acquired Steve Finley patrolled center, and Rhodes held down right field. Two of them stuck in the big leagues, and continue to start even today. Rhodes hit .246 in April, .184 in May, and AAA in June. In 1992 he made the bigs as a backup outfielder; he went 0-4 in pinch-hit work in April, and then returned to AAA.
He had run out of shots in Houston. Eric Anthony reemerged as the last member of that outfield in 1993, and in April of that year Tuffy Rhodes was released. The Royals picked him up, and must have immediately realized that something was different. He had only stolen 13 bases in the minors over the last two years, after making that the focus of his game before, but nothing else had changed in his stats. Until then. Joining the team at the end of April, he immediately started pounding the ball. Up to this point his career HR tally, minors and majors, was 16 home runs. From May to July, 1993, he had hit 23, joining with future rookie one-year-wonder Bob Hamelin to form a potent middle of the order for Omaha, then a member of the American Association. But, rather than promote Rhodes, then hitting .318/.386/.603, he was traded. In a three way deal that July 30, the Yankees sent the Royals John Habyan, and the Cubs, who received Rhodes, sent the Yankees durable reliever Paul Assenmacher. Tuffy continued to thrash the ball in Iowa, and he eventually earned a fifteen game trial in the Show. He made the most of his time there, hitting .288 with 3 homers.
On Opening Day, 1994–for the second time in three years–Rhodes found himself on an opening day lineup card. Most people know what happened next, and until 2001 it would be his one claim to fame: he homered three times that day. Gone, once and for all, were memories of the punchless defensive-minded outfielder the Astros drafted; he hit .312/.396/.600 that first month, including another multi-homer game on April 28th. But what happened next must have been deja-vu: his average fell under .200 for May, .218 without a homer in June, and then .200 in July. August 10th was his last game; he went 1-1 with a double in a pinch-hit appearance, and then the strike intervened, preventing his eventual demotion.
In 1995 he played sporadically for the Cubs until May, when he was claimed off of waivers by the Red Sox. As a backup outfielder he lasted until June 8–he went 0-1, sending his average with the club to .080–before he was sent down to Pawtucket. It was the last time he would play in the major leagues.
In 1996, rather than spend another season shuttling between the majors and the minors, the 28-year-old Rhodes trekked to Japan, joining the Kintetsu Buffaloes. Unlike most foreigners, who are at times bewildered by the culture shock they experience, Rhodes flourished, even becoming fluent in Japanese. That, combined with his immediate success, made him extremely popular. He hit .293 with 27 homers in 1996; in 1997, he hit 22 homers and stole 22 bases; and in 1999 he broke out with 40 home runs, leading the Pacific League. After falling back to 25 homers in 2000, at 32, he seemed to be on the wane for his second time in as many continents.
Instead, he started 2001 on a tear. And he just kept on hitting. And with five games left in the year, Tuffy Rhodes had 55 home runs, tied with Sadaharu Oh for the single-season record.
It had happened before, and this is what made it so weird to hear, during the WBC, John Kruk’s apparent mancrush on the Honorable™, Dignified™ Japanese Home Run leader. In the 1980s, a former major league scrub by the name of Randy Bass erupted in Japan, winning two consecutive triple crowns(!) and, in 1985, hitting 54 home runs. Going into the last series of the season, that is, he had 54. His opponents? Sadaharu Oh’s Yomiuri Giants. In those two games, nine plate apperances, Bass’s Hanshin Tigers having already clinched, he was walked six times. At one point, disgusted, he walked to the plate and held the bat upside-down. (At which point he was walked.)
So fast forward to 2001, Rhodes having outdone Bass by tying the record. While, in 1985, sentiment around the league was in favor of Oh, Rhodes had been very much accepted by the Japanese. The third-to-last game of the season, coincidentally, Rhodes and the Buffaloes–who had, once again, clinched–would play the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, managed by none other than Sadaharu Oh. (Can anyone imagine Roger Maris doing this?) From the web site Tokyo-Q:
In the game, however, Rhodes saw 18 pitches, and only two were strikes. And those two strikes were borderline at best, and could easily have been called balls. And considering that the catcher held his glove a foot or more outside the plate, they probably weren’t supposed to be even that close. Rhodes walked twice, and in his other two times at bat, he swung at pitches over his head in a futile (Randy) Bassian effort to break the record. Once again, protectionism had reared its ugly head in Japanese baseball. The Hawks, if you haven’t guessed already, happen to be managed by Sadaharu Oh.
The still reigning homerun champ claimed to be “out of the loop,” and said that it was up to his pitchers to decide for themselves how to pitch Rhodes. Pitching coach Yoshiharu Wakana took the heat for Oh by saying that he (Wakana) ordered his pitcher not to throw strikes. Wakana said, “If Rhodes broke the record I would have felt sorry for Oh.” (Wakana [added]: “I just didn’t want a foreign player to break Oh’s record.”) It should be noted the Hawks pitcher, Keizaburo Tanoue, said that he didn’t want to walk Rhodes, and that he “felt really bad about the situation.”
Rhodes had two more games that year, against So Taguchi and the Orix Blue Wave, but he was unable to break the tie. Rhodes would lead the Pacific League twice more in home runs, with 51 and 45 in 2003 and 2004, before an injury-marred 2005 season led to his ill-fated return to the majors.
So ends, it would seem, the odd story of Tuffy Rhodes. He may never have broken through in America, but like Pokémon, schoolgirl outfits, and Def Leppard, he’ll always be big in Japan. Could he have hit in the US? Who knows. Finally, before you comment telling me I just wasted nearly 2000 words on a guy who’s got nothing to do with the Cardinals, a look at his combined AAA and Japanese League stats–not what could have been, but what, for better or worse, was.
[Note: OBP is approximate.]
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB AVG OBP SLG 22 PCL 107 385 68 106 24 11 3 59 24 .275 .358 .418 23 PCL 84 308 45 80 17 1 1 46 5 .260 .345 .331 24 PCL 94 332 62 96 16 10 2 54 8 .289 .393 .416 25 AmA 123 490 112 156 43 3 30 89 16 .318 .391 .602 27 IL 69 246 40 70 13 3 10 43 8 .285 .375 .484 28 JPL 130 501 80 147 29 1 27 97 11 .293 .363 .517 29 JPL 135 511 88 157 37 0 22 102 22 .307 .409 .509 30 JPL 134 494 81 127 25 0 22 70 15 .257 .359 .441 31 JPL 131 491 94 148 38 1 40 101 5 .301 .388 .627 32 JPL 135 525 85 143 25 2 25 89 6 .272 .345 .470 33 JPL 140 550 137 180 19 0 55 131 9 .327 .421 .662 34 JPL 138 534 94 145 31 2 46 117 5 .272 .361 .596 35 JPL 138 508 94 140 16 0 51 117 7 .276 .391 .608 36 JCL 134 523 95 150 17 0 45 99 3 .287 .377 .577 37 JCL 101 379 54 91 9 0 27 70 2 .240 .337 .478 CAR 1793 6777 1229 1936 359 34 406 1284 146 .286 .375 .528