Almanac Fandom: Tuffy Rhodes Day

 

 

 

 

A baseball short story. Non-fiction.

 

(None of the names have been changed to protect the identity of anyone. All events happened exactly as described.)

 

This month marks the twentieth anniversary of Tuffy Rhodes Day. Rhodes batted .286 across 13 seasons in Japan with 464 home runs. In 2001 he hit 55 HRs to equal Sadaharu Oh’s single season record. He was so good that year that Japanese pitchers intentionally walked him to prevent Oh’s record falling into the hands of a foreign slugger. Although he only averaged .224 in the major leagues, he was the first National League player to hit 3 HRs on opening day (1994) and the first major leaguer to hit HRs in his first 3 at bats.

 

Now to the story.

 

It was May 14, 2000, a Thursday night, fresh and warm: spring. They say May is the best month in Japan, marked by the Golden Week break – lazy days under the cherry blossoms that symbolize beauty’s fleeting transience.

 

It’s a two-can journey down the Sobu line from Chiba Prefecture into Tokyo’s Suidobashi station. I rode it with my new work colleague, Brian, a newcomer to Japan from Colorado. We were going to the Tokyo Dome to see the two least supported teams in Japanese baseball- the Kintetsu Buffaloes and the Nippon Ham Fighters. The teams had so few supporters that the tickets were free and the stadium still almost empty. (It is physically impossible to catch coronavirus at Fighters v Buffaloes games, but we were not to know that for another twenty years.)

 

As we sipped tall boys of Asahi Super Dry, Brian reminisced about an all-American baseball upbringing. He’d been to countless games, seen countless champions, visited countless ball parks. And boy could he play. If not for that shoulder injury who knows how far he could’ve gone?

 

Tokyo Bay, like the conversation, buzzed by. Makuhari, Funabashi, Ichikawa…

 

“Oh and if there’s anything you don’t understand at tonight’s game just let me know and I’ll explain, my Aussie friend.” I dropped the odd cricket reference into the conversation by way of cultural exchange (no glove, that kind of thing) but I sensed his eyes glaze over, so quickly shifted back to his turf. Didn’t want to spoil the new friendship- let’s keep it on his terms.

 

… Kinshicho, Ryogoku, Akihabara …

 

Then he shifted in his seat, and leaned closer, as if concerned the comatose suit beside him would eavesdrop. “There’s one thing missing,” he confided. “Something that burns.” I wondered what emotional back story was coming. A dashed scholarship? An MVP award he deserved that went to some jock with the hot girlfriend?

 

… Ochonomizu now – only one more stop…

 

“I’ve never caught a foul ball. It has to happen one day.”

 

Suidobashi arrived, and the grand stadium was lit up before us. I felt a warm buzz, perhaps from the beer but also from a sense that I’d made a new buddy – a sporty guy but with a sensitive heart, who’d been able to share his both his past and his dreams so easily.

 

With two more Asahis in hand we took prime seats close to the batter’s box (because no one else was there, remember). Innings 1, and the lead-off Kintetsu lightweight hit a dribbler to first. The second struck out. That brought the colossus, Rhodes, to bat. King of home runs. He took the first couple of loopers, to build the count. The next pitch came hard and fast. Tuffy time. Rhodes swung with inhuman power and connected. For a split second we thought it was flying for the bleachers but then we realised it was rocketing upwards, towards the ceiling of the Dome itself. Then arcing strangely backwards… kind of our way. Skylab-like: a distant white speck growing ever larger in the sky for us, the lone white spectators in the proverbial West Australian desert.

 

“This is it!” I screamed to Brian. “Your foul ball!” It seemed to be airborne for minutes. Time slowed down. There was no one anywhere near us – it was ours for the taking. Then I turned to realise, horrified, that my companion was frozen to his seat. The moment had arrived and he was seized with existential indeterminacy.

 

I had no choice. Without spilling a drop I caught the foul ball one handed. A few Japanese salarymen several rows back leapt into applause. I held it aloft to acknowledge the modest crowd but didn’t want to lord it over anyone. Brian sat distraught, head between his knees. I offered him the ball but he waved it away wordlessly.

 

And that’s the story of Tuffy Rhodes Day – twenty years ago this month. The birth of a beautiful friendship.

 

 

 

 

 

Postscript

 

Today Brian is happily married living in Tokyo. He receives an email reminder from the author every May 14th. His son Alec is in the academy of the Yomiuri Giants – the biggest team in Japanese baseball – and plays at the Tokyo Dome.

 

 

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About

Failed to get drafted out the Wallsend Swans in the early 80s Newcastle league. Joyrider on the Richmond karma bus.

Comments

  1. Steve Earl says

    Love the yarn – as much as cricket or footy is a religion in Australia – so too baseball in japan ( and of course elsewhere)
    Had my own experiences and the missus talks of a pile of chips , gravy , cheese curds ( maybe missing a T) called poutine – just lookin at it I’m off to the cardiologist

  2. Dave Bollen says

    Classic short story

  3. Classy little yarn BFS. Really enjoyed it.

  4. And, why the way, no-one would begrudge a little more detail on the one-handed take of the steepler. Why one hand?

  5. Ben Fenton-Smith says

    Thank you Steve, Dave and John. Naturally I had to take it one-handed as I was holding my cup of Asahi Super Dry in the other. One couldn’t risk placing it on the ground and losing sight of Skylab.

    BTW at Japanese baseball beer is served at your seat by roaming staff with kegs on their back, but that’s another story! (Steve, there must be a series to be written about ballpark gastronomy of the world.)

  6. BFS, roaming keg-backpacks used to be the case at Ballymore too.

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