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Opening Day memories: Tuffy Rhodes takes Doc Gooden deep three times, Cubs still lose

Sporting News — (Ryan Fagan)

With Opening Day 2020 delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, Sporting News staffers look back at their most memorable Opening Days from the past.​

I knew of Tuffy Rhodes heading into Opening Day 1994, which is to say I remembered opening baseball cards with his picture on them. I knew he’d been a rookie with the Astros. 

His cards all had his given name, Karl, if I remember correctly, and they were filed away in the long, white 660-count cardboard boxes I used to house the extras of my collection, not in the protective sleeves or plastic cases reserved for the “these are worth something” cards. 

It didn’t take long after Opening Day 1994, though, for me to go diving back into those boxes to pull out as many Tuffys as I could find. 

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April 4, 1994, was the day Karl Rhodes etched his name into baseball lore, and on April 5, I wasn’t the only one sorting through cardboard boxes full of baseball cards to find the guy named Tuffy. Rhodes hit three home runs that day, all three off Dwight Gooden. 

If you want to watch the entire game for yourself — it was one of "those" afternoons at Wrigley, and the Mets wound up winning 12-8 — MLB Network is showing the game starting at midnight ET as part of its baseball marathon. It’s good stuff. 

"We made him a legend today," Mets manager Dallas Green told reporters after the game. 

That they did. Well, Gooden did. Rhodes became the first player in MLB history to hit three consecutive homers to start a season, and he also became the first player ever to hit three homers in a game off Gooden. 

It would have been a great feat from anyone in that day's lineup, which included Ryne Sandberg and Sammy Sosa, but from Rhodes — who had all of five career MLB homers heading into the game — it was downright stunning. A little background: Rhodes rose through the Houston organization mostly as a stolen-base threat — in his Age 19 season in Class A, he stole 65 bases and hit just one homer — but he couldn’t get on base regularly in the big leagues, posting a .219 average and .302 on-base percentage. 

He was set free in late April 1993 and signed with the Royals a few days later. He played well for Kansas City’s Triple-A club — .318 average, 23 homers, 10 stolen bases in 88 games — but never made the majors with the Royals. He was traded to the Cubs right before the July 31 trade deadline, as part of a three-team deal that landed Paul Assenmacher with the Yankees and John Habyan with the Royals. 

He played well for Triple-A Iowa — .320, 1.015 OPS — and hit three homers and stole two bases when the Cubs called him up to end the 1993 season. That led to the Opening Day nod in 1994 as the Cubs’ leadoff hitter. 

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In his first at-bat, leading off the bottom of the first, Rhodes worked the count full and smacked Gooden’s sixth pitch over the wall in center field. 

In the third inning, Rhodes hit a 3-1 pitch over the wall in left, an opposite-field shot. And in the fifth inning, Rhodes deposited a 1-0 pitch into the bleachers in left-center. 

"After the first home run, I was geeked. You know, geeked. That's slang for excited," he told reporters, according to the Chicago Tribune. 

"After the second one, I was a little more calm. I never thought I could hit two homers in a game. Then when I hit the third one, I was frightened.”

The Tribune doesn’t say why he was frightened, so I can’t help you answer that question. 

Rhodes hit only five more homers in his final 94 games that season, and he was out of the majors by the end of the 1996 season. He wasn’t done with baseball, though. 

Rhodes experienced one of the great career revivals when he moved across the Pacific Ocean to play baseball in Japan. Rhodes hit 464 homers in his 13 seasons in Japan, popping 40 or more seven times and topping 50 twice. 

Maybe we shoulda seen that coming.