CHIBA — Tuffy Rhodes has discovered the fountain of youth.
Apparently it was hiding in the dairy section.
“I’m drinking milk,” joked the Orix slugger, who is batting .375 with 23 RBIs to start the season and leads the Pacific League with 11 home runs. “Milk does a body good.”
“I wish it was just that,” he added. “You know some things are . . . I’m not as fast as I used to be, my defensive skills are not as quick as they used to be. But I’m staying healthy, I’m eating right and I’m going out there and I’m not getting injured. That’s the big key.”
Rhodes is off to a blazing start this season, but says despite the numbers his focus is always the same when he steps out onto the field.
“I’m worried about winning,” Rhodes said. “Those are great accolades, but I’m just worried about winning. That’s what I play for.”
At 40 (he’ll be 41 on Aug. 21) Rhodes is one of Japanese baseball’s oldest players. Age doesn’t seem to have caught up to the Cincinnati native yet, however, as he continues to outplay players half his age.
“I play one day at a time,” Rhodes said. “When you get to be 40, I’ll be 41 this year, you don’t think like you think when your 27 and say ‘I want to play this game until I’m 35.’
“I take it one day at a time. Of course I’m playing well, but being 41 this year, who says my body will hold up during the summer. So I’ll go one day at a time and if I start breaking down in the summertime then I know it’s time for me to go home.”
Rhodes’ fast start, “it’s only 20 games,” he cautions, is just a mirror image of what he’s done over most of his career in Japan.
The Buffaloes star is Japanese baseball’s active leader with 453 homers and is currently 12th all-time. He needs 13 to pass Masashiro Doi for 11th and 22 to surpass Koiichi Tabuchi and break into the top 10.
In addition to his home run numbers, Rhodes is second to only Hanshin Tigers outfielder Tomoaki Kanemoto among active players with 1,230 RBIs (18th all-time) and is the active leader and fourth all-time with a .561 slugging percentage.
Despite his accomplishments, the Orix star is content to focus only on the task at hand.
“Not yet,” Rhodes said when asked if he reflected on his achievements. “If I start thinking like that I’ll get lazy and I won’t perform at my highest level. So when my career is done I can sit back and then start thinking about stuff like that.”
Rhodes isn’t the only 40-something, turning heads this season, with Kansai neighbor Kanemoto wreaking havoc in Osaka with the Tigers.
Kanemoto, the NPB’s oldest position player at 41, led the Central League in batting average (.379), homers (tied for the lead with Chunichi’s Kazuhiro Wada at eight), RBIs (30) and slugging percentage (.736) through Friday.
“I’m pretty sure Kanemoto does the same things I do,” Rhodes said. “He takes care of himself more then he’s ever had to do and he also goes out there and plays hard.”
The two will meet later this year at Osaka Dome for a two-game interleague series starting on May 22. While he doesn’t compare their similarities, Rhodes has a lot of respect for his fellow veteran.
“All I do is compare myself to Tuffy,” he said. “I go out there and play every day and play hard. If they want me in the lineup, great. If they don’t, then I think I’ll start doing something else.
“When you see a guy on the other side of the field that’s in his 40s and he’s still playing at a high level, that’s a good feeling,” Rhodes said. “When you got guys who are 22-years-old or 27, that you’re still outplaying, that’s a real good feeling also.”
Rhodes says he’s comfortable at the plate and isn’t expecting to change anything about his approach as he tries to lead the Buffaloes to back-to-back appearances in the Pacific League Climax Series and ultimately a spot in the Japan Series.
“I’m 40 years old, nothing’s going to change,” he laughed. “I’m still healthy. I’ve got a real good swing, which I’ve had my whole career. You see it in the batting average and the home runs.
“I can’t change anything now, it’s too late.”