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It's personal for 40-year-old All-Star rookie Arthur Rhodes

Cincinnati setup man, who has played for eight teams in 19 years, will be thinking of his son, who died at age 5 in December 2008. 'That was my only little boy, and he loved baseball,' he said.

July 12, 2010|By Mike DiGiovanna

In the Year of the Young Pitcher, a theme that gained steam when Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez, 26, and Tampa Bay's David Price, 24, were named to start Tuesday's All-Star game, it's a 40-year-old All-Star rookie, a guy who works in middle relief, who may provide the most compelling story line at Angel Stadium.

Nineteen years and eight teams into his big-league career, Cincinnati Reds setup man Arthur Rhodes has made his first All-Star team, an honor the left-hander called "the best thing that's happened to me in my whole career."

It would have been even more gratifying if his son, Jordan, who was 5 when he died in December 2008 because of an undisclosed illness, was in Anaheim to share it with him.

Rhodes draws the initials "J.R." on the side of the mound before every appearance, and he will do the same if he enters the game for the National League on Tuesday night.

"It will be emotional," said the usually stoic Rhodes, who is 3-3 with a 1.54 earned-run average in 41 games and has helped the Reds surge into first place in the NL Central.

"You might see a couple of tears in my eyes. I wish my little boy was here to see me, but he'll be right behind me on the rubber."

It's one thing to recover from elbow surgery that sidelined him for the entire 2007 season and become one of baseball's most reliable relievers at such an advanced age.

It's another to do it while coping with the devastating loss of his only son days before Christmas in 2008.

"I'm very happy he's been able to keep his head on straight, because if it was me, I don't know how I would have reacted to that situation," said Reds second baseman and NL All-Star Brandon Phillips. "I don't know if I would have respected the game like he does. Baseball really kept him sane."

Rhodes, who has two daughters, won't discuss the details surrounding his son's death — he didn't even speak publicly about it until last month — but he acknowledged that he remained in baseball in part to honor Jordan's memory.

On Rhodes' right forearm is a tattoo of a cross with the word "Faith." On his right calf are his son's initials ringed by angel wings.

"That was my only little boy, and he loved baseball," Rhodes said. "I wish he could be here running around with the other kids, but he'll be right beside me watching the game."

Phillips calls Rhodes "Benjamin Button" because the pitcher gets better with age. Rhodes tied a major league record this season by going 33 straight appearances without giving up a run.

"He's meant everything to our team," Phillips said. "For him to be playing so long and to still be doing what he did when he was younger is amazing."

The Reds closed the first half Sunday in Philadelphia, and Rhodes was on the same flight to Southern California as Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel, who will lead the NL squad.

"I told Charlie I wanted to get into the game, even if it's just to face one batter," said Rhodes, in the second year of a two-year, $4-million deal with Cincinnati. "He laughed."

But one reason Manuel selected Rhodes and Dodgers left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo is that "the AL has some really good left-handed hitters," Manuel said. "I definitely might want to put some left-handers on some of them."

Rhodes is one of many weapons in an NL pitching arsenal loaded with hard throwers, one that, in the twilight of a 5 p.m. start, could make the difference for an NL squad trying to snap a 13-year All-Star game winless streak against the AL.

Jimenez, who is 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA and 113 strikeouts, has hit 100 mph with his fastball, and the right-hander complements his heat with a slider, curve and split-fingered fastball.

"Ninety-seven is not supposed to move," Phillies slugger Ryan Howard said of Jimenez, who threw a no-hitter against Atlanta on April 17. "It's supposed to get there straight and hard."

Florida right-hander Josh Johnson, Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton and San Diego closer Heath Bell all have high-90s fastballs, and aces Roy Halladay (Philadelphia) and Tim Lincecum (San Francisco) can be nasty.

"We have a great pitching staff," St. Louis catcher and NL starter Yadier Molina said. "I have no doubt that this is the year for the NL to get the win."

Angels center fielder and AL reserve Torii Hunter has played enough twilight games in Anaheim to know that pitchers will have an advantage for a few innings.

"It's tough here — the first couple innings, you don't see anything," Hunter said. "You get a guy cutting and sinking the ball, you think it's a fastball … those pitchers can be filthy."

Texas Rangers outfielder and AL starter Josh Hamilton has his own early game strategy.

"Close your eyes and swing, I guess," he said. "We'll have to adjust early and see how it goes."

The AL staff has plenty of electrifying arms, and leading the way is Price, the left-hander who is 12-4 with a 2.42 ERA.

Of the 34 pitchers on All-Star rosters, 17 are under the age of 27, and many throw heat.

"Teams have changed their scouting scales because velocity is higher than it was 10, 20 years ago," said San Diego manager and NL coach Bud Black. "The average fastball was 88-90 mph when I was scouting for Cleveland [in the mid-1990s]. Now it's 91-92 mph.

"The athlete today in all sports is bigger, stronger and faster. In the old days, you'd see 94-95 mph and go, 'Wow!' Now, you don't even blink."

New York Yankees Manager Joe Girardi, who is leading the AL squad, sees many of those dominating young arms in the AL East.

"It doesn't just stop with David Price — you look at [Boston's] Clay Buchholz, the whole staff in Tampa Bay, [Toronto's] Ricky Romero — it seems to be one after another," Girardi said.

"It seemed like 15 years ago it was a time of young shortstops, and other times, there's an influx of great young outfielders. But right now, the influx of young pitching in baseball is incredible."

And so is the influx of some old pitching in this All-Star game.

"I know I'm the old veteran on this team, but I'm a rookie in the All-Star game," Rhodes said. "Call me what you want, but I'm going to enjoy this, soak it all in. I'm having the best time of my life."

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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