Rick Rhoden was by far the best golfer on the celebrity golf circuit. He even played on the PGA Champions Tour. I ran into Rick at the celebrity tournament and began chatting with him. He said that he wasn’t the player he used to be and he’s having trouble hitting his irons these days. It was the perfect opportunity to come into Club Champion. Rick wound up getting new irons. He also agreed to sit down for an interview. Here’s what Rick had to say.
Leonard Finkel: Rick, you had a long illustrious career as a major league baseball player. What would you consider your highlights?
Rick Rhoden: Biggest highlight was getting to the major leagues at all. I hurt my leg when I was eight years old on a slip-n-slide. You hooked up the hose to a 40ft. piece of plastic, you shot water on it and you run and dive on it. I hurt my knee and looked down it was bleeding. There was a pair of rusty scissors and they cut my knee. I went to the hospital and got a tetanus shot and got stitched up. I was on bedrest for three months. I had osteomyelitis and needed an operation. It’s a bone disease. Mickey Mantle had that. I went to Shriners hospital in Greenville, South Carolina. Stayed there like 2 or 3 months. They made a leg brace for me, which I had to wear for 4 years. I couldn’t play any organized sports. I didn’t start playing organized sports till I was 14. I was just hoping to get a college scholarship. Getting to the major leagues was a hope of mine but I never thought it was possible. Getting to the big leagues was a bigger accomplishment for me than it would be for most guys.
Finkel: That makes a lot of sense. Do you want to point out any of your highlights from your playing days?
Rhoden: I was fortunate. I played on some really good teams, I played on some really bad teams, but I also played for the probably the best two organizations in baseball, the Dodgers and Yankees. I feel really fortunate that I was drafted by the Dodgers. The Dodgers always had great pitching, so I got to see all kinds of pitching at the big-league level in spring training. I tried to pay attention and I did the same thing when I started playing golf, play with guys who are better than me and just paid attention to how they were doing their work.
With baseball, as a kid I always played with older kids because that’s what I was around, and I think if you have any talent, it’s better to be the youngest then to be the oldest and best player. You got to do a lot of things to compete with older guys. My first year in the big leagues as a rookie was, 1975 and they put me in the bullpen because the Dodgers led the big leagues in ERA for like 11 straight years. I was on the All-Star team in 1976 with the Dodgers and then my next year in 77 and 78 I was in the World Series. I thought this is pretty easy. Four years and I have one All-Star team and two World Series. Then I got traded the next year to the Pirates. I was hurt, my shoulder was messed up and put on the disabled list. They won the World Series that year and I never got in another playoff game. But I was in two All Star Games. I think one of the things I’m known for is my hitting. I was probably one of the best hitting pitchers when I played. I had like an 11-game hitting streak as a pitcher which is like I think 5th or 6th all time. And I had 28 hits in 1986. I still think that’s the most hits by a pitcher since then.
Finkel: You won more than 150 games in your career and had 69 complete games and there are very few complete games pitched anymore. In your opinion how has the game changed, and do you think it has changed for the better?
Rhoden: I can’t hardly watch baseball today. I think most of the guys who played when I played feel pretty much the same way. The biggest difference is size. The guys are really big now. I did some minor league work for the Dodgers four or five years ago, for like 4 years, and the Dodgers when I played, we had ten pitchers. All the teams had 10 pitchers now they have 13. So that gives the manager three less moves he can make for pinch-hitting and stuff. And they have more guys on the disabled list now than we did when we played. The years I played with the Dodgers we led the league in ERA all four years. I think our heaviest guy probably weighed 225. I think I weighed 206. Most of the guys weighed under 200 pounds. The Dodgers 7 or 8 years ago, out of 13 guys, seven guys weighed over 230 pitching for them! They’re big, they throw hard. I don’t think you see as much pitching you do as when I played. I think it’s more throwing now.
Everything’s the same now. The number one and number two guys on every team are great. But hitters are killing these third, fourth and fifth starters on most teams. In my opinion, the first reliever in the sixth inning is throwing 97 miles an hour. And just if he could throw it in that box you see on TV, he can pitch in the big leagues, because he going to pitch one inning. Next guy comes in, it’s the same guy for almost every team. And the difference between them and the closer is, the closer has command of his fastball and command of a breaking ball. And they’re good, they’re really good. He only has to pitch one inning. But it’s all about power now, because with power you can get away with more bad pitches. And it’s all about strikeouts. They don’t care about walks. But the ballparks are smaller. The guys are bigger and stronger. There are a lot of balls flying out of the ballpark now and that style of hitting is a strikeout is just an out. You just keep on trying to hit homeruns. I think that’s why there are so many strikeouts. With two strikes, they don’t adjust like we were always taught to do, put the ball in play. They’re told, we don’t care if you hit a .240, if you hit 30 homeruns. And I think that’s the reason there’s so many strikeouts and home runs.
The thing that bothers me the most about watching the game today, as an ex-player, is the attitude of the players. This guy hits someone in the face with a pie, turns their hat around, leaving the field and not shake hands after the game. I’m not saying that that’s bad. We were brought up differently. It’s a long season. You don’t show up the other team because I don’t care who you are, you are going to stink sometime during the season. Pete Rose, Tom Seaver, you’re going to have three or four bad outings somewhere during the season. I don’t care how good you are. It just happens because the competition is so good. Everybody’s all about attention. They hit a homerun and they celebrate and run the bases. make fights in the dugout and do all this stuff and they carry the bat to first base. I mean, you never did any of that stuff until the last 15 or 20 years. It’s all because of TV. To me what changes the game and pretty much every sport is the TV. Because now it’s kind of “oh look at me generation” in sports.
Finkel: Who would you say are the best ball players you’ve ever seen or played with?
Rhoden: I think arguably the best player of all time is Barry Bonds. I played with Barry his rookie year with the Pirates. Played against his dad when he was playing with the Cubs. I think it was 86 that he came up, the year that Canseco went 40/40. He had great power to centerfield, left-center and could hit the ball out of the ballpark. But he couldn’t handle the ball inside. And I told him, when he learns to hit the ball inside, he’s going to hit 40 and steal 60. Well he did hit over 40 and he did steal 60, just not in the same season. You could tell he was going to be a great player. I didn’t know he’d be maybe the greatest player of all time, but you could tell he was going to be a great player. I played with some good players. Reggie Smith was a great player who doesn’t get recognized, played for the Dodgers. He could do everything. Run, hit, switch-hit, throw. Dave Parker when I first got to the Pirates was a great player. And probably the best player I saw, he had ups and downs, but could do everything was Dave Winfield. Mike Schmidt was a great player. I’m sure I’m missing quite a few guys. I wasn’t playing when Aaron and Mays played. I caught McCovey at the end of his career, played with Stargell when he was near the end of his career, he was great. But I think Barry Bonds is probably the best play I’ve ever seen.
Finkel: So after you retired, you transitioned in a big way into golf. How did that come about?
Rhoden: I never took a golf lesson. I just went to the golf course and played. When I quit playing baseball, I probably was a two handicap. I lived in LA during the wintertime and every Monday there were two or three scramble tournaments with baseball players in the area. I played more of that kind of stuff. I used to play in spring training with the Dodgers and they had their own golf course. Once you got all your work done, though you couldn’t go play before 2 o’clock, and you had to walk. That was the rule. So pitchers, especially once you get to the big leagues, if you weren’t doing anything that day or pitching in a game, you go play golf. It was just a mile from spring training camp. So played a lot of golf there. I really wasn’t thinking about golf for anything more than just fun. When I retired I came to Florida, built a house on the golf course and started playing a lot of golf. In 1990 Randy Quaid was filming the movie Days of Thunder with Tom Cruise. I played with him when I lived in LA. He played a lot of golf while they were filming. One day he said I should play in this tournament in lake Tahoe. He said they have actors and athletes playing. They’re going to have a purse. He said he’d see if he could get me in. I didn’t get in that year, but I played in 91 and I won. So I just kept playing.
Finkel: In your heyday, you were the best golfer among professional athletes. What is it about baseball that translates to golf and how does it help you?
Rhoden: Throwing a baseball, hitting a baseball are very similar to hitting a golf ball. Weight transfer and timing are the key. Baseball players can usually hit and make contact pretty good. In baseball, you want to keep your weight back and then explode into the ball. It’s basically the same thing in golf. If you do it too quickly, you come across the ball and you’re high and to the right. It’s a timing thing and most guys in baseball have pretty good hand – eye coordination. That’s why they can pick up golf pretty quick.
Finkel: It’s funny that you brought that up because I did a story on golfers on the celebrity tour. I remember they were all hoping you stayed on the Champions Tour because you were pretty much winning almost every event on the Celebrity Tour. What was it like for you to play in the professional golf ranks?
Rhoden: When I first started the celebrity stuff, I had never played any kind of a competitive golf tournament. In 1991 in the first round, on the first tee I was just glad to get it airborne down the fairway. The first day I had like 38 putts. Every time I put the putter in my hand it felt like a sledgehammer. I felt I could beat that the guys that I knew out there. But there were a lot of guys I didn’t know from other sports. So I relaxed the second day. I think the second day I shot par or one under and I was in the final group the next day and won. I think what happened was none of us had played much competitive golf, especially on TV. First there were four tournaments, then six; I think we got up to 15 tournaments. We had ten for quite a few years. Actually, you can make some pretty good money playing. So everybody started working on their game a lot more. You get professional athletes, especially at the top level, they figure I’ll do this like I did my sport. If I work at it and spend time on it I’ll get better. Well they did! But so did the better players, the guys who were the best golfers also got better. So the same guys kept winning. I won eight times.
I moved to Ponte Vedra and joined Pablo Creek. which has no houses, just golf. There were a lot of good players there. That’s why I moved. They had Bobbie Duvall, Leonard Thompson, David Duvall played out there some. Fred Funk played some. I was in my mid-forties and I played with them all the time. I got a lot better and then I tried to hit a qualifying school. Right before I turned 50, I got hit from behind by cement truck. Totaled my vehicle and I had three herniated discs in my neck. I kept trying to play but I just couldn’t play as good. When I turned 50, I ended up having three Top Ten’s. I played 35 events, but I never was the player I was before that. When I played those four years I got into bad habits. Just favoring the hurt all the time and I finally got surgery year I went to Tour School. I went to Tour school with Jean Jones, and we tied, the first year they didn’t have like seven spots to be totally exempt and all that did was get you to Monday qualifying. I enjoyed Monday qualifiers and got in 15 events that one year. I played with Trevino and Hale Irwin. I got to meet Arnold Palmer. I played with a lot of really good players. Gary Player use to meet me and my wife at the airport and come eat lunch and sit and talk with us about health. He always talked about health. Most of them are really good guys. They all want to talk about baseball. But I never played out there fully healthy and still today I have bad habits ingrained in my system.
Finkel: I recently ran into you at a celebrity event in San Diego and you were having problems hitting your irons, so you wound up coming into Club Champion. What was that experience like for you and what clubs did you get?
Rhoden: It was better than I expected. I had been to places like Titleist and Callaway and Taylor Made when I was playing the celebrity tournaments. I’d go and hit their clubs and they put you on monitors, but not like they did at Club Champion and not to the same extent. I didn’t know there was anything like Club Champion. They could adjust, put on different heads. You hit five or six with one shaft with a head on it and you just know that shaft wasn’t right. Or the numbers would say it wasn’t right. And you just hit balls and change shafts and change heads until finally you were getting the kind of numbers like I had on my club. I always used forged clubs when I was a real good player. I started losing distance as I got older and I think a lot of that has to do with the shaft. I went to a cast club for a few years to get my distance. But probably all three go maybe as much as 5 yards difference, and that’s a lot when you’re hitting a wedge or a 9 iron. I thought it was impossible get anywhere near the distance I was getting before. Now I’m hitting pretty close the same the distance. And with better results because they are more consistent. And the clubs are more forgiving.
Finkel: What irons did you wind up getting?
Rhoden: I got Calloway irons and I got a softer shaft then I’ve been playing too. It feels much softer. I could feel the head of the club better than I could with the stiffer shaft.
Finkel: And how are the irons performing for you?
Rhoden: The irons are great. This time of year I don’t play as much as I do normally like during summertime. I like to hunt, fish and stuff like that. This time of the year is when the hunting season is. So I’m in and out of town not playing as much as I normally do. But from what I seen so far since I got them, I really like them a lot. I think once I get back into it I’ll be playing like four times a week. I’ll start playing better. It is a good feel again. They feel how they’re supposed to feel when you hit a good shot.
Finkel: My last question, playing in so many celebrity events, you got to play with a lot of awful amateur players. What’s the best tip you can give them?
Rhoden: I think for most of those guys it’s tension. They have too much tension. Tension is a killer in golf. Another big one, they’re always trying with their irons to help the ball in the air instead of hitting it into the ground. It’s just the opposite. And all they want to hit is driver. They need to work on shots from 100 yards in, getting, up and down around the green, learn how to chip a little better, putt better.
Finkel: Thanks Rick.
Rhoden: My pleasure.
By Leonard Finkel