Inside Pitch Magazine, Winter 2016

Cover Interview: Dusty Rhodes, Flagler College

Inside Pitch Magazine CoverA homophone is a word or phrase that has the same sound as another word but is spelled differently and has a different meaning. The greatest example of that in baseball is Dusty Rhodes, who has seen more than his fair share of ‘sandy streets’ through the years. This year’s recipient of the ABCA/Wilson Lefty Gomez Award recalls his years in coaching, which first started at alma mater Florida Southern in 1969 and would eventually move on to Palm Beach Junior College in 1974, earning his first head coaching gig a year later.

“I played at Palm Beach Junior College and I was on the first team and we weren’t very good,” Rhodes said. “I came back and we still weren’t very good. I took over in 1975 and had to work my tail off, I did everything I could do there. In 1979 we had a pretty good team, and at that time you could play four-year schools in Florida, there was no limit on games. We played Miami, I brought Florida and Florida State into the West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium to raise some money. Dick Howser was the head coach at Florida State and we ended up beating them in a doubleheader, and they had a great team. It had been a lot of work, but I thought, ‘we might have something here.’”

“One of the best things that ever happened to me was when I was at Palm Beach Junior College,” Rhodes recalls. “There was an American Legion team there coached by Bob Shaw, who wrote the book on pitching. He called me up and said ‘I know you’re a college head coach, but if you want to get better you’ll come be an assistant on my American Legion team.’ And I thought that was the greatest compliment in the world. We finished third in the country that year, and I can never repay Coach Shaw for what I learned that summer and how it impacted the rest of my career.”

Rhodes would eventually move on to the University of North Florida, where he accumulated a record of 827-363 from 1988- 2010 and won a collection of awards: Florida Sports Amateur Coach of the Year, two-time Diamond Sports Co. Area Coach of the Year, three-time NAIA Area V Coach of the Year, three-time ABCA NCAA Division II Southeast Region Coach of the Year, four-time NAIA District 25 Coach of the Year, four-time Florida Diamond Club NAIA Coach of the Year, five-time Peach Belt Conference Coach of the Year.

Rhodes led the Ospreys deep into the postseason at multiple levels: the NAIA World Series (1989 and 1991) and the NCAA Division II World Series (2000, 2001, 2005). In all, Rhodes’ UNF teams advanced to 16 postseason tournaments. He credits the ABCA and his assistant coaches for helping him learn and develop along the way.

“When I was a head coach, I wanted my assistants to do their jobs and be very open with what they said to me and about the team. That’s how you succeed. Every assistant that I ever had was required to join the ABCA. Everything that you do from now until the end of your career, you need to spend time with all of those coaches at one place, at one time. I’m just a product of the ABCA. I started going [to the convention] back in the 1970s and I still go there every year and listen to guys talk about the game. There may be some topics that I think I already know, and I’ll say ‘man, that’s a different look, I’m gonna try that out.’ Then there are other things that I know but quit using years ago, and I need to start using again.”

After his time at UNF, Rhodes became the hitting coach for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, the Midwest League affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, for three seasons (2011-13). Even though he was in a new role at a new level, his simple approach to coaching stayed consistent.

“You have to adjust to your role, but it’s your job to work with the manager, the head coach and the assistants on making the team better. It can be tough in college baseball because there are so many rules, so every meeting is about what you can’t do. One of the things about pro baseball is that the meetings have all the minor league managers and coaches there. Your job is to make them better, to make that organization better. For any coach, your job is to make the team better.”

As if his success across most levels of college baseball wasn’t enough, Rhodes has also served in multiple capacities in international baseball, starting as an assistant coach for Team USA (1993-94 and again in 2001). “When I was a junior college coach, I also worked with the Yankees as an infield/hitting guy in Greensboro, North Carolina. Then I took over at the University of North Florida, and since we were an NAIA school I could still coach professional baseball in the summer. I worked for the Brewers at that time and I met Rob Derksen, who had worked in the Australian Winter League for the Brewers. At the same time, I worked for USA baseball in Millington, Tennessee and I got to see all the greatest players and teams from all over the world—Japan, Korea, and Cuba.”

“In 1994, I coached in the World Champi- onships in Nicaragua for Team USA. Australia was working on their 1996 Olympic Team and I was scouting for Team USA and Skip Bertman. Well, Rob Derksen was named the head coach for the Australian team, and he called me. I talked to Skip and told him the situation, and he told me I had to take an opportunity like that, because ‘you might not ever get another chance.’”

Rhodes was able to gain valuable perspective working with and competing against players and coaches from all over the world.

“In the United States we think we own the game of base- ball, but there are a lot of differ- ent things that come out of different parts of the world that really help the game.” “A lot of people assume that Australians are just like [Americans] and they're not, they have a different theory of life and they go about the game different. They’re very intense and once they have an idea of how they want to go about things, it’s all out. That is a really tough group of people. I really enjoyed those guys and learned a lot from them.”

“Japan, they’re purists, they play the game at such a pure level. They have very good work ethic, practice habits, I really love how they approach the game. Cuba had the best baseball team in the world back in the early 90’s, when a lot of those great players couldn’t get out of there. They play about 300 days a year. Korea, Chinese Taipei, you just take the best things out of other organizations and try to instill it in your players, and all of a sudden you see if happen on the field with your guys, and it makes you feel pretty good.”

“The Greeks really didn’t have baseball, so when Athens got the Olympics they really weren’t planning on doing anything for baseball. But through MLB and the Angelos family they put together the money and got the facilities built, and they were great. The team itself was made up of Greek Americans; we spent about three or four summers just trying to get them passports, which was really a challenge. Thanks to Mike Riskas, who was a coach a Pomona College, we were able to communicate effectively with our players.”

“Being a part of the opening ceremonies in two different Olympics is just something you can’t explain, it’s awesome.”

Rhodes is quick to offer simple advice to aspiring young coaches that are looking to move up in the game.

“Don’t ever miss an opportunity to coach. Whatever it takes. If that means you have to work the camps with the young kids, six year old kids, do it. They’re going to teach you a lot more than you think. When they’re that young you have to teach them every little bit about the game and down the line, you realize it’s those little things that win games. If you can’t catch and you can’t throw, you can’t win. From putting on their shoes and uniform to how to catch and throw properly, that’s the difference between winning and losing.”

Nowadays, Rhodes works as the volunteer assistant coach at Flagler College.

“I’ve known Dave [Barnett, head coach at Flagler] for thirty something years. We coached against each other. I’ve got an irregular heartbeat so I had to get out of professional baseball, and when Dave asked me to come down here, he saved my life. I’ve just loved it. I go straight to the field and work and make our players better, and I love that part. Whether I was a head coach at a four-year school, a manager in the minor leagues, an assistant coach or a bench guy, the game is the game. You have to do your part to make your guys better.”

Rhodes has created a culture of winning everywhere he’s been, but it doesn’t mean his losses haven’t gone by the wayside.

“I think if you’re really a good coach or manager, the losses will be around more than the wins. The thing about losing is that it’s okay to dwell on it for a little bit. You’ve got to understand how you lost, why you lost, and who you lost to. You have to get your players to understand that and to learn from that experience, from the little things. You can’t get beat the same way twice. I’ve been beaten by some of the best coaches in the country.”

“I’ve tried to take a lot of things from each different level. I coached against some of the best college coaches in history. Whenever somebody beats you, you’re trying to figure out how they did it, and influence your players to beat their players. My biggest influences are the coaches I’ve played for and coaches I’ve competed against.”

“There are only two ways to look at the game if you’re a coach. The best thing is playing and winning, and the next best thing is playing and losing.”

Lefty Gomez Award

Rhodes’ steady and straightforward approach throughout nearly 50 years of coaching is a big reason why he will be presented with the 2016 Lefty Gomez Award. Perhaps the most prestigious accolade in all of amateur baseball, the honor is given to an individual who has distinguished himself amongst his peers and has contributed significantly to the game of baseball locally, nationally and internationally, and is presented each year at the ABCA Hall of Fame/Coach of the Year Banquet at the ABCA Convention.

“A lot of times you’re just recognized by your achievements, but when you’re recognized by a group of your peers that you really respect and have learned so much from, it’s really special,” said Rhodes. “It’s a great honor because I know a lot of these guys, have competed against them in all different divisions and at all different levels. I can’t tell you how much it means to me.”

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