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Friday, Oct. 1, 2004

Rhodes: Short strike 'useless'


Staff writer

Though the Japanese pro baseball strike of two weeks ago appears to have won the players a legitimate chance for the entry of a 12th team in time for next season, one veteran player wonders what, if anything, was really gained.

News photo
Tuffy Rhodes, star outfielder of the Yomiuri Giants, speaks at a meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan on Monday night in Tokyo.

"I think the two-day strike was useless," Yomiuri Giants star outfielder Tuffy Rhodes told the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan in Tokyo on Monday, in a wide-ranging session that covered a variety of topics.

Rhodes has a unique perspective on the labor dispute, having gone through the 1994 strike in the major leagues while a member of the Chicago Cubs.

"The American strike, sometimes I think (sympathy) was 60-40 in favor of the owners. I think we struck for the wrong reasons. I was only 25 at the time and I was a player. Sometimes, when you don't agree with something, you still have to back it.

"We struck because we were too greedy."

Though his emotions are mixed when looking back at the strike of 10 years ago, Rhodes' feelings this time around are very firm.

"This time it is totally different. I am 100 percent behind the players. The owners have stepped on the players for so long and smacked them around."

Rhodes, nearing the end of his ninth season in Japan, believes the strike should have been unconditional.

"We told them we were going to strike on Saturdays and Sundays. We didn't need to do that. If you are going to strike, just do it. If you really believe in it, then do it.

"We have to think about the longevity of the sport and how to keep it going."

Rhodes, who as a foreign player is not allowed to be a member of the players union here, remains suspicious about management's promise to speed up the process of evaluating applications for a new team.

News photo
Tuffy Rhodes hits his Central League-leading 45th home run for the Yomiuri Giants in the first inning of Wednesday's 4-2 win over Hiroshima at Tokyo Dome.

"I will believe it when I see it. This is a game that has turned into a business.

"I think four new teams would be a good number (for the game to expand), but you don't want to have too many new teams.

Rhodes, who starred for the now defunct Kintetsu Buffaloes for eight seasons, expressed genuine sadness at the demise of his old team.

"I feel bad. Especially for the kids who grew up in Osaka hoping to play for the team. Now that dream is gone."

Having hit more home runs (333) than any other foreign player in the history of Japanese pro baseball, Rhodes has achieved another noteworthy feat this season by changing leagues and not missing a beat.

Rhodes, who leads the Central League with 45 home runs, signed with the Giants prior to the start of this campaign, after the Buffaloes refused to offer him a multiyear contract.

"Especially being 36, I didn't know what to expect," Rhodes commented.

"With everybody saying the Central League was a better league than the Pacific League, I knew if I kept myself healthy and studied the game I could be successful.

"It has been a good season for me, personally, but a bad season overall, because I wanted to win."

With nearly a full season in the CL under his belt, Rhodes says things look pretty much the same to him.

"I don't think the pitchers in the Central League are any better. I used what I learned playing eight years in the Pacific League and took it to the Central League and it has worked just as well."

When asked to analyze baseball in Japan with that in North America, Rhodes pulls no punches.

"You can't compare the game in America and Japan. They are totally different. They both have great athletes. You have baseball in America and yakyu in Japan.

Best known for hitting 55 home runs during the 2001 season to tie Japan's single-season record -- set by Sadaharu Oh in 1964 -- Rhodes lost precious at-bats in late-season games against Oh's Hawks that year, when the team pitched around him.

But three years later, Rhodes shows no signs of bitterness over what was clearly an underhanded act that Oh shared complicity in.

"I had enough people supporting me when I was trying to break the record, but I might not even have broken it if they had pitched to me," Rhodes stated. "The pressure was incredible. I couldn't wait for the Japan Series to start that year."

When reflecting back on that magical season, when the Buffaloes won their final Pacific League pennant, Rhodes turned profound.

"The record doesn't make the man, the man makes the record. I am very happy with what I have done. I don't need that record to be happy."

Rhodes gave a very biting analysis of why the Giants -- currently in third place in the CL -- didn't get the job done this season.

"Pitching is the reason we didn't win. We have some good pitchers. They just don't know their roles. The hitters all know their roles, so it is easy for us to play.

"When you have a guy out there that is your stopper one day and then the next day he is the first guy up in the bullpen, you can't do that. You have to have roles. Our pitchers don't have roles. They don't have confidence. That's why they are not successful."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of rookie Giants manager Tsuneo Horiuchi, you could say.

"On top of the pitching, we didn't have good chemistry as a team -- the coaches and the players. That's why we didn't win. I think we will do a lot better next year.

"On paper we should win. But that's just paper. The (Chunichi) Dragons have great pitchers. They have a great manager who does well with the pitchers. They know their roles."

When the subject turned to Ichiro Suzuki and his pursuit of George Sisler's major league single-season hits record, Rhodes didn't hide his admiration for his former Kansai rival.

"The object of the game is to get hits and Ichiro is the best at doing that. His hand-eye coordination is incredible. The guy just doesn't strike out.

"Ichiro told me he was not raised to play baseball in Japan, but in America, in the major leagues.

"He used to ask me every year if he could play in America, and I would tell him, 'Yes.' "

When questioned on who he thought might be the next Japanese player to star in the majors, Rhodes quickly replied, "(Daisuke) Matsuzaka. He is the toughest pitcher I have played against in Japan. He throws 96 miles per hour (154 kph). He has a good fastball, slider, curveball and changeup."

One of Rhodes' most provocative comments came when he was asked what would be the first thing he would change if he were put in charge of Japanese pro baseball.

"The Giants wouldn't have so much power."

Clearly indicating that he did not think it in the best interests of the game to have one team wield as much clout as his club does.



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