Will Tuffy Rhodes play another season for the Orix Buffaloes in 2009?
That question was posed by reader Paul Williams from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., and the answer is probably yes.
Rhodes slammed 40 homers in 2008 for the Pacific League’s second-place team and led the league with 118 RBIs while batting .277.
It would be a record-breaking year for the veteran slugger whose Japan career began when he was 27 years old way back in 1996 with the Kintetsu Buffaloes when that club was still playing home games in Fujiidera Stadium in Osaka Prefecture, a year before the opening of the Osaka Dome.
Rhodes would be playing his 13th season in Japanese baseball, despite the fact he missed a year.
He played 1996-2003 with Kintetsu and 2004-2005 with the Yomiuri Giants, then sat out the 2006 campaign following shoulder surgery. In 2007, Rhodes, fluent in the Osaka dialect of the Japanese language, returned to Kansai with the Orix Buffaloes.
Though not counted against his team’s quota of gaikokujin players because he has played more than nine years here, Rhodes would set a new record for most seasons played by a foreigner, breaking the mark of 12 held by Wally Yonamine (Yomiuri 1951-1960 and Chunichi Dragons 1961-1962).
In addition, Tuffy celebrated his 40th birthday on Aug. 21, 2008, and a check of the foreign player register reveals he would be the second oldest American to play in Japan. The number one ojisan is George Altman, 42 years old when he played first base for the Hanshin Tigers in 1975.
Rhodes never expected he would be playing in Japan this long but said he wanted to make the most of the opportunity to play here when he reported to his first Buffaloes spring camp almost 13 years ago.
“I knew from the first day I wanted to learn as much of the language and experience as much of the culture as I could,” he said.
That he has done and, whenever he retires — whether it is a year later or five years later — he will leave with a slew of career records for foreign players and, unless some hitter comes up with a 56-homer year, a share in the single season home run record of 55 with Sadaharu Oh and Alex Cabrera.
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Word came last month of the death of Joe Lutz, manager of the Hiroshima Carp (for a few weeks, anyway) in 1975. He died Oct. 20 at the age of 83 in Sarasota, Fla., following a period of poor health after suffering from diabetes and a stroke.
Lutz had only a 14-game major league playing stint with the St. Louis Browns in 1951 and was a coach on the staff of the Cleveland Indians from 1971 to 1973.
In 1974, he joined the Carp as a batting instructor and, in a surprising move at the time, was promoted to team manager for the 1975 season.
His tenure as the Hiroshima skipper lasted only one more game than his big league playing career. He resigned — or was fired, depending on which version of the story you hear — three weeks into the regular season after compiling a 6-8-1 record. He left the team after a dispute with Central League umpires — or team management — again depending on which version of the story you hear.
Coach Takeshi Koba took over as manager and, with star players Koji Yamamoto and Sachio Kinugasa, led Hiroshima to its first Central League pennant victory.
But it was Lutz who brought in former major league players Gail Hopkins and Richie “Shane” Scheinblum to play first base and right field, respectively, and supplement the hitting of slugger Yamamoto and ironman Kinugasa.
Hopkins and Shane were the first Americans (except for a few with Japanese ancestry who were on the Carp roster in the 1950s) to play for Hiroshima, and their inclusion in the lineup made the Carp a complete team.
Lutz is also credited with changing the team’s main uniform lettering and cap color from a grayish-blue to red, in order to project a “fighting spirit” image. While the team flag is still the pre-1975 color, the red-and-white uniforms have been a Hiroshima trademark for 34 seasons, along with the “Aka Heru” (Red Helmets) nickname for the Carp batting lineup.
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Which major league teams are in the running to sign Yomiuri Giants free agent pitcher Koji Uehara and the highly touted amateur right-hander Junichi Tazawa of Nippon Oil?
The Nikkan Sports newspaper speculates eight MLB clubs will enter the bidding war for Uehara: the San Francisco Giants, Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels, Texas Rangers, Baltimore Orioles and both New York teams, the Yankees and Mets.
It is expected Uehara will sign a contract with one of those for a halfway decent chunk of change, but not nearly as much money as he would have received two or three years ago before a series of injuries and a mediocre 2008 season. He could probably make more dough staying with Yomiuri, but the MLB spotlight beckons.
If he goes to the Yanks or Mets, let’s hope he does not get caught up in the New York meat grinder that made mince out of Kazuo Matsui and Kei Igawa.
As for Tazawa, the Nikkan lists seven teams who have so far expressed interest in the industrial league fireballer: the Indians, Detroit Tigers, Philadelphia Phillies, Seattle Mariners, Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers and Boston Red Sox.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com
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