Cubs Classics: Tuffy Rhodes’ historic Opening Day
Karl Rhodes was one of the greatest home run hitters in professional baseball history.
Let me try this again: Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes made Chicago Cubs history in April 1994 during the team’s home opener against the New York Mets and their ace, Dwight Gooden. Rhodes’ real baseball fame was made a continent away two years later.
1994 was a strange year for the Cubs and baseball itself. Ryne Sandberg retired on June 12th in order to take care of his kids due to a separation and divorce from his wife, Cindy. The Cubs lost their first 11 home games, prompting manager Tom Trebelhorn to hold a press conference for fans after the eleventh loss. It was set up at the firehouse beyond the left-field wall on Grace St.
Sadly, the season itself ended in early August with an ugly lockout/strike. (Which may have been lucky for the last-place Cubs.) The World Series was lost for the first time in baseball history.
Except for this one great day, Rhodes was known more for his All-Star career in Japan as a famous home run hitter. As an MLB player, he was more of a journeyman. On this Opening Day, Rhodes was in the lineup because starting outfielder Glenallen Hill was injured.
The Cubs were coming off of a decent 1993 season, finishing 84-78 with high hopes under new skipper Trebelhorn going into spring training.
Rhodes had a good showing in 1993 with the Cubs after getting dealt by Houston in a three-team trade at the deadline that involved the Yankees, Astros and Cubs. By May of 1995, Rhodes was claimed off of waivers by Boston only to get picked up again by the Cubs. By 1996, he was beginning a legendary career in Japan that lasted 13 seasons and produced 464 home runs.
On this day in 1994, the stage was set for Rhodes to have his best day ever in the big leagues. Franchise history was made in a very Cub-like way. You see, Rhodes hit 3 home runs off of Gooden and had four hits on the day. Still, the legendary Mets pitcher and his team managed to win the game 12-8.
A historical note: Let’s take you back to 1984. The Cubs were beginning a magical playoff run for the first time, garnering a postseason bid in 39 years. GM Dallas Green made three huge trades that reshaped the team and the Cubs’ lovable loser image. He picked up Gary Mathews and Bob Dernier from the Phillies, Dennis Eckersley from the Red Sox and Rick Sutcliffe from the Indians.
At 19, Gooden became the Rookie of the Year in 1984 and a Cy Young winner in 1985, as he began a fabulous career. Gooden won his first career game, but the Cubs pounded the rookie pitcher on April 13th, knocking him out of the game after 3.1 innings. He also got beat on a pivotal weekend in August. In that 1984 series, the Cubs pulled away that weekend from the Mets and never relinquished first place in the National League East race.
The point was, Gooden heard that some of the veterans on the Cubs had his pitches and were saying he wasn’t as good as advertised. Larry Bowa was the Cubs shortstop in 1984 and when he became a Met in 1985, he told Gooden the pitcher was tipping his curveball. Later, Gooden told numerous teammates and confidants over the years that he saw red whenever he pitched against the Cubs.
Back to April 4, 1994, Rhodes was the leadoff hitter that day and faced Gooden in the bottom of the 1st.
“It might be, it could be, it is! A home run into the left-center corner of the bleachers!” legendary broadcaster Harry Caray shouted out of the Cub TV booth as Rhodes connected on the first of 3 successive home runs of the new season off of Gooden.
He hit one in the 3rd inning and one in the 5th. All three went into the left-field bleachers.
“I am not a home run hitter,” Rhodes told a group of us media members. “I am here to hit line drives and get on base.”
Gooden lasted until two outs in the sixth, but he had the lead despite giving up 11 hits and 7 runs (5 earned). Rhodes hit just 5 more home runs the entire season.
By the way, Gooden made good on his promise. He went 24-4 lifetime against the Cubs, the most wins against any team Doc ever faced. Rhodes became a legend in Japan using launch angle before we ever heard the term in the U.S. He was tied for the Japanese single-season record of 55 home runs until 2013.
Tuffy hit over 500 professional home runs, but Cubs fans will always remember him for the three he hit off Gooden on Opening Day 1994.
“I didn’t even know who Tuffy Rhodes was and he was on my team,” MLB TV and Marquee contributor Dan Plesac told me, reminiscing about that game 26 years ago.