As he walked back from the outfield after wrapping up his pre-game fielding practice, fans found him, ran down to the first row of the stands and yelled, “Tuffy! Give me your autograph!”
Rhodes reacted to them, waving his hand and casting affable smiles.
And when one of the youngsters said to him, “I want to see your home run,” a smiling Rhodes in fluent Japanese responded, “Bokumo (Me, too).”
game against his ex-club, the Yomiuri Giants, at Kyocera Dome in Osaka. The four-time home run king still
plays well as the team leader at age 39.
Then, Rhodes, surrounded by foreign and Japanese reporters, started chatting with them and answering to their questions in a thorough manner.
That is a typical pre-game routine for Rhodes, an Orix Buffaloes slugger. He is always surrounded and embraced by people, including fans, players and coaches.
It’s not only because he has accomplished many feats, such as hitting the most home runs and RBIs (382 homers and 1,038 RBIs through Wednesday’s games) as a foreign player in Nippon Professional Baseball and tying Japan’s single-season home run record (55, also accomplished by legendary Sadaharu Oh and Alex Cabrera) in 2001.
Above all, however, it is his style of play, smiles and up-beat attitude that have made him a lovable man for both Japanese and foreigners.
Interestingly enough, Rhodes thinks he has not changed much since he first came to Japan in 1996.
“I just be myself,” Rhodes humbly said. “I know that if it wasn’t for the fans, I wouldn’t be a professional baseball player. So I try to give a little bit back. I know it’s hard I can’t please everybody, but I try and please as many as I can.”
First-year Buffaloes manager Terry Collins said Rhodes is the true leader of the team and every teammate pays immense admiration.
The 39-year-old Rhodes, who bats in the No. 4 spot in the lineup, has lived up to his team’s — and the fan’s — expectations so far. Rhodes has hit 22 round-trippers (second in the Pacific League) and come up with 45 RBIs (third).
Greg LaRocca talked about the positive influence that Rhodes brings into the batting lineup, including himself.
“He’s such a presence,” said LaRocca, the Buffaloes’ No. 3 batter who is having a career year, batting .314 with 18 homers and 44 RBIs.
“He changes the whole lineup because he’s in there. He’s the best gaijin hitter to play here, arguably. So his presence hitting behind me in the lineup, they don’t want to pitch him. They’d rather pitch to me. So he helps me immensely.”
Asked about the key to becoming a successful gaijin from the United States, Rhodes said that no matter what kind of career you had in America, you have to understand it does not mean much over here.
“I just tell them, whatever you learn about baseball in America, don’t bring it over here,” Rhodes said.
“It’s a different country. You have to learn the ways of the country. That’s the only way you’ll be successful.
“A lot of guys come over here with the same mentalities (from) America, but it’s a different ballgame and a different way of thinking.”
Foreigners must get used to the long, tough practices, including spring training and pre-game workouts.
Rhodes described it “like a boot camp.” But unlike other pro-Major League Baseball critics, Rhodes offered his opinion about the good aspects of Japanese-style workouts.
“It’s a non-stop (workout),” he said. “But at the same time, you’re not going to lose because you’re not in shape or you’re not prepared.”
“That’s a good thing. There are always two sides of stories. . .”
Again, Rhodes has been one of the most successful foreign players. But he has struggled in the last couple years; he hurt his right shoulder and was released by the Yomiuri Giants after the 2005 season and his challenge to play for his hometown club, the Cincinnati Reds, last season did not work out.
Nevertheless, Rhodes is back. Back in Japan.
Because he can still play? Of course.
But maybe, it is also because he is loved by people in this country.