A hat trick and the First Lady

Some people think that the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the greatest album ever made. I don’t share that belief, but I’m willing to give credit where credit is due. It was the birth of what radio programmers called AOR, or album-oriented rock. It changed people’s lives, and that’s no small thing. And the first line sung on the album has a special relevance to this piece: It was twenty years ago today. Twenty years is enough time that it seems like long ago—because it was—but it’s still close enough to be remembered, too.

Outside-WrigleyOpening Day is always the most anticipated day of the season, and 1994 was no different. First Lady Hillary Clinton, a Cubs fan from suburban Park Ridge, was on hand to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. She wore a blue outfit and a matching Cubs cap for the occasion, and even though I couldn’t really see her from my vantage point in the right field bleachers, it was still exciting.

Not everybody shared my enthusiasm, though, particularly whoever it was that hired an airplane to circle the field carrying a banner that read “HILARY U HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT.” It was a reference to some scandal story or another, but that’s less striking than the idea that an airplane could repeatedly circle the ballpark during the game. Things sure have changed since then.

Aside from all of the festivities of Opening Day, there’s a guaranteed pairing of the best pitchers that both teams have to offer. The Cubs’ opponents that day, the New York Mets, had former Rookie of the Year and Cy Young award winner Dwight Gooden on the mound. He wasn’t what he once was, but the Cubs still had their work cut out for them that day.

The Cubs’ Opening Day starter, Mike Morgan (those were some lean days back then), retired the side without giving up any runs in the first inning, and the Cubs came to bat. The leadoff hitter that day was Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes. It was the first time I had seen Tuffy Rhodes play, and it struck me what an unusual name it was. Gooden went to 3 and 2 on Tuffy, and then the payoff pitch ended up in the left field bleachers. You can’t start a season off any better than that.

The wind was blowing out that day, and it helped the Cubs to take an early lead. When Tuffy went deep a for a second time in the third inning, it tied up the game at 2-2, with the Mets having hit a pair of homers off of Morgan in the top of the inning. “This Rhodes guy is all right,” I remember thinking to myself as he rounded the bases a second time. Hitting a home run off of Doc Gooden wasn’t easy, but Tuffy had already hit two.

Inside-WrigleyWhen he came up again to lead off the fifth inning, the Cubs trailed the Mets by a score of 9-5. As I said, the wind was blowing out that day. When he connected for the third time off Gooden, the bleachers went nuts. People began throwing their hats onto the field—myself included– as he circled the bases. The significance of his “hat trick” was such that play had to be stopped, as the grounds crew came onto the field to remove all of the hats. I have since seen one similar hat trick in Wrigley Field, by Sammy Sosa against the Brewers in June of 1998, but I don’t think there was a similar tribute given to him at that time. It was the first time that any player had hit three home runs on their first three at-bats of the season. Tuffy came out for a curtain call, and he must have felt like Superman when he did.

When Tuffy Rhodes came to bat again in the bottom of the seventh, he had a chance to make history. A few players had hit four homers in a game before, but nobody had done it on Opening Day. So what if the Cubs found themselves in a 10-7 hole at the time? The story that day was Tuffy Rhodes, regardless of how the game ended up.

But the Mets threw Rhodes a more effective curveball than Gooden ever did, when they brought in a reliever just before he stepped to the plate. It seemed as if the Mets knew Tuffy had Doc Gooden’s number that day, and they weren’t about to let him prove it yet again. As Gooden was lifted from the game, and Eric Hillman made his way to the mound to warm up, I turned to the scoreboard to capture the most unusual stat line I had yet seen at a baseball game.

Tuffy-Rhodes-3HRHillman walked Tuffy on four straight pitches, so we didn’t get to see history made in that at-bat. But he came up again in the ninth inning, and few people left the game before that happened. If Tuffy Rhodes was going to make history, people wanted to stick around to witness it. The Cubs were in a 12-7 hole, when the Mets put John Franco in to close out the game. But Tuffy was leading off the inning, and two of his earlier homers had come when he led off. With the wind still blowing out, anything could happen.

Instead of making history with another soaring homer into the left field bleachers, Tuffy lined a single to right to start the inning. It felt like a letdown, in some way. The Cubs of the 1990s were ill-equipped to overcome a five-run deficit in the ninth, and the Cubs pushed one run across before losing by a score of 12-8. It had been a historic day, certainly, but there were two chances to make it something even more special, and neither came to fruition.

There was no place for Tuffy Rhodes to go but down, and that’s exactly where he went. By June, he had lost his leadoff spot to Sammy Sosa, and his starting job in centerfield was taken over by Glenallen Hill. The players’ strike then cut the season short in August. Rhodes then made the team in 1995, but played sparingly before being waived in May. He was claimed off waivers by the Red Sox, but it didn’t last long, and by season’s end he was out of the majors for good.

But baseball had not seen the last of Tuffy Rhodes. He went to Japan in 1996, and played there until his retirement in 2009 at the age of 41. He never again hit three homers in a game, that I am aware of, but he did make a solid career for himself. By the end of his career, he had hit 474 homers in the Japanese league. He also won the Most Valuable Player award for the Pacific League in 2001, which puts him in the company of Ichiro Suzuki, Yu Darvish, and Masahiro Tanaka. Baseball, as the saying goes, was very, very good to Tuffy Rhodes.

To return to the Beatles theme for a moment, Opening day of the 1994 season was a Day in the Life of Tuffy Rhodes, and it couldn’t have been much sweeter. Whether or not it was his greatest day is something only he knows, but many other good days were still ahead for him. Here’s hoping that this year’s opener creates some heroes for a new generation of Cubs fans.

R. Lincoln Harris is a guest contributor for Wrigleyville Nation. He also writes for BlueBattingHelmet.Wordpress.com, ChicagoSideSports.com, ThroughTheFenceBaseball.com, and FiveWideSports.com. Thanks R. Lincoln for the contribution!

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