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Friday, Oct. 5, 2001

TALK OF THE TIMES

Rhodes finds formula for success in Japan


American Tuffy Rhodes is the senior-most foreign pro baseball player in Japan, currently completing his sixth season with the newly crowned Pacific League champion Kintetsu Buffaloes. The 33-year-old Rhodes, who played for the Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox during his six-year major-league career (1990-95), has equaled the Japan single-season home run record of 55 -- set by the legendary Sadaharu Oh with the Yomiuri Giants in 1964 -- this season.

He heads into the final game of the season, just as Roger Maris did when he was trying to break Babe Ruth's home-run record in 1961, tonight at Green Stadium Kobe against the Orix BlueWave with a chance to take sole possession of the record.

Rhodes sat down for an exclusive interview with The Japan Times in Osaka recently and spoke his mind on a wide range of subjects.

Q: In the history of Japanese pro baseball there have been over 600 foreign players and only two of them (Rhodes and Randy Bass) have hit more than 50 home runs in one season. Is that a reflection on the level of pitching in Japan?

"When you look at the 600 foreign players that came over here, half of them didn't stay long enough. They didn't have any patience or didn't get the chance. Of the guys who did stay, Bobby Rose was a great hitter. But most foreigners just don't stay long enough to get their feet wet and really learn how to play Japanese baseball.

"I've been blessed to be here six years and figure out how to play baseball in Japan. Some of the good players that have come here over the years may have been pitched tougher too, so they wouldn't get balls to hit."

Q: Has the pursuit of Sadaharu Oh's record been a distraction for you?

"It doesn't really bother me. I'm so focused on trying to win the championship. Sometimes I will get up there and try to whack one out. Overall, I think I have been doing a pretty good job of handling it. It has been exciting. Records are made to be broken."

Q: What percentage of hitting is mental as opposed to physical?

"Mentally, you cannot hit if you are thinking too much. You are not going to be successful if you are thinking while you are hitting. Physically, you need to have great hand-eye coordination and Ichiro is the best at that.

"I would say hitting is about 85 percent physical and 15 percent mental. Basically just going up there, seeing the ball and hitting it."

Q: Do you have to have a certain type of personality to succeed as a foreign player in Japanese baseball?

"You have to come over here with an open mind. It's tough enough being away from your home country. We know how to play baseball, but it's what you do after you leave the stadium. If you go home and start thinking about baseball, you will drive yourself crazy. You need to separate the two.

"A lot of guys will sign a contract and come over here and just be miserable. They don't know what to expect and then can't deal with it."

Q: Why has there not been more fan support of the Buffaloes in terms of attendance this season?

"We're just not known for drawing a lot of fans and that's sad. We have a lot to offer as a team and I guess because we are not a Central League team we just don't have that following. Traditionally in Osaka, people support the Hanshin Tigers."

Q: Could the team be doing more to promote itself?

"I don't know what more they could possibly do. They brought in Tommy Lasorda to help. They have had some special weekends. Over the years I have been here they have tried to promote the team over and over.

"It was hard when we weren't winning, but now we are so that should promote the team itself. It's sad that we don't have more fans."

Q: What is your normal routine after the season?

"I usually take a month off after I get back home to Houston. Then I get back into my program of weightlifting, running, playing catch and exercises. I work out with some of my old teammates from the Astros like Ken Caminiti, Trenidad Hubbard, Eric Anthony. I also work out with Jose Cruz Jr."

Q: Do you have any kids?

"I have one boy. My son (Tuffy Jr.) is seven years old. He comes over here in the summer and stays with me each year during June and July because my wife is a flight attendant so it is kind of tough on her.

Q: How many kids were there in your family?

"I was the baby in a family of six kids (three boys and three girls). We were a very sports-oriented family. One of my older brothers played college football and was drafted by the New York Jets. He got injured though and was released."

Q: Do you have any intentions to try and play in the major leagues again?

"I've had offers from the majors. I'm not ready to stop playing every day. I feel I can still play every day and that is a great feeling. If I was older and thought that I couldn't play every day, then I would consider going back to the majors.

"We'll see. I'm never going to say never. We will finish out the season and see where we go from there."

Q: What are your plans for life when you are done playing baseball?

"I don't think it's in me to be a coach. I'm just looking forward to being with my son. I've been away from him so much over the years."

Q: What do you usually do on your days off?

"I usually take it easy at home until around dinner time, then maybe go out and catch a movie."

Q: What are you into outside of baseball?

"I enjoy playing and watching basketball. I also like Sony PlayStation and music."

Q: Do you enjoy living in Osaka?

"Yes, I do. Osaka is a big city, but it's more traditional. Tokyo has a lot more to offer in terms of international stuff. You don't hear as many Japanese people speaking English in Osaka as you do in Tokyo."

Q: Do you cook for yourself at home?

"Sometimes. Simple stuff like steak, corn and rice. I also cook pasta."

Q: What has been the toughest thing for you to get acclimated to since you came to Japan?

"The language has been the toughest single thing for me. I think I am making progress, but they have so many different ways here to say something. Then you have words that can mean two different things. So it is tough. "Sometimes I will speak in Japanese to a Japanese person and they will act like they don't understand you."

Q: Is there anything about your major league career, that in retrospect, you would do differently?

"I wish I would have been a bit older. I signed straight out of high school and made it to the majors at 20. When I was coming up from the minor leagues, I was an everyday player. But in the majors I was a platoon player as a fourth outfielder.

"I wish I would have had more experience and more of a chance to get out there and play every day. Because I know I can play the game and it's what I love to do."

Q: Who were your idols when you were growing up?

"My idols were Ken Griffey Sr. and the Big Red Machine (Cincinnati Reds). They had some great teams.

"I was born and raised in Cincinnati and went to the same high school as Pete Rose (Western Hills). I used to play with Ken Griffey Jr. in my summer league and against him in high school."

Q: What is your opinion about Pete Rose and his being banned from baseball?

"I'm biased, because I am a fan of his. The stuff he donated to our high school baseball program helped me and other players a lot. He bought lights for our field and helped out in many other ways.

"He was a great player, but he gambled on baseball and he should pay for it. At the same time, that should not keep him from the Hall of Fame. There are all kinds of guys in the Hall of Fame that weren't straight shooters.

"I'm not saying what Pete Rose did was OK. I'm not trying to justify it, but the all-time hits leader in baseball is not in the Hall of Fame? I mean come on."

Q: Do you think that the people that have been around Pete Rose, O.J. Simpson and Mike Tyson have helped contribute to their downfalls?

"I would agree with that, but they were bad too because they let themselves get caught up with those people. I feel sad for them. You get yourself in a good situation, 'Why would you want to destroy that after working so hard to get that far? Why would you want to do that?' It's just a waste of talent.

"People will come at you in all different types of ways and angles, but you have to have some common sense. My philosophy is, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is."

Q: If you could improve one thing about Japanese baseball, what would it be?

"I don't like how they treat the Central League compared to the Pacific League. It's like night and day. Both leagues have professional players, but the media tends to focus on the Central League and the Giants.

"We do have some great things to offer in the Pacific League. We have some great players.

"In the majors, you have fans who love the National League and fans who love the American League. It doesn't seem so one-sided like here."

Q: Do you think there should be interleague play in Japan?

"I think it would crush the Giants-Tigers rivalry, but at the same time it would help us. It would divide the city. Can you imagine if we played Hanshin at the Osaka Dome how many fans we would draw?

"I want to know how the owner of a team can be more powerful than the commissioner? How can this guy (Yomiuri Giants chairman Tsuneo) Watanabe sit there and make the rules?"

Q: So you are happy with life in Japan?

"Yes, I am. I'm doing something I want to do. I'm playing baseball. I just love to hit."



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