Even now, when Tyrone Woods does return to Japan, he still can’t walk the streets without getting noticed.
Yet back in his hometown of Brooksville, Woods can live in relative anonymity. Little may local residents realize, but an international baseball star is one of their own.
Earlier this month the 1988 Hernando High graduate did receive some recognition for his past accomplishments, as one of eight new inductees into his alma mater’s Sports Hall of Fame.
“It was such an honor and a privilege to be inducted into the Hall of Fame,” Woods said. “It really shows all the hard work I’ve done and all my talents were noticed, and that I haven’t been forgotten about.”
A standout two-sport athlete with the Purple and Gold, Woods would eventually go on to have an impressive professional baseball career half a world away.
A right-hander, he would hit 538 home runs across 21 seasons from 1988-2008, before retiring and returning full-time to Hernando County.
At 42 he currently lives in Spring Hill with his wife of 14 years, Cheryl.
“The first couple of years I did (miss baseball),” Woods said. “Now I’m starting to adjust to retirement life. I can’t ask for anything better. I’m trying to improve my golf game now.”
Many years in the game
Woods, 6-foot and 190 pounds during his days at Hernando, began playing both baseball and football for the Hernando Youth League at a young age. At the prep level, he logged three full varsity seasons in each one.
In football he played tailback and linebacker, and was a three-time All-Gulf Coast Conference selection.
But in baseball, as a catcher, outfielder and third baseman, he truly shined. He was All-GCAC three times and first team All-State twice.
“I really enjoyed baseball more than I did football, because I knew I could have a long and more prosperous career in baseball,” Woods said. “In football, you can have a freak injury that basically ends your career.”
Central Florida Community College – now known as the College of Central Florida – in Ocala offered him a baseball scholarship. However, the Montreal Expos made him a fifth-round draft pick in 1988.
Wanting to help his mother financially, taking the money and a chance to join a Major League organization was the easy choice. But what turned into a nine-year stay in the Minor Leagues didn’t go smoothly.
“It was tough being in the Minor Leagues, traveling city to city, living out of a suitcase. I felt I was pretty much a late bloomer as far as hitting,” Woods said.
“There was a lot of frustration. Basically it’s so political, to the point that no matter what kind of numbers you put up, if nobody in the organization likes you you’re not moving up. That was one of the main reasons I chose to go overseas.”
Woods slowly moved up the various levels of Minor League ball, playing six years in the Montreal system, one with Baltimore and two seasons with Boston. He never advanced beyond Triple-A.
He had a breakout season in 1996 playing for Double-A Trenton, at the time a Red Sox affiliate. At 26 he had become a slugging first baseman, posting career highs with a .312 batting average, 25 home runs and 71 runs batted in over 99 games.
Blessing in disguise
The situation truly turned sour the following spring. The Red Sox refused to promote him to Triple-A Pawtucket and instead demanded he play for Minatitlan Potros of the Mexican League.
“When I asked (general manager) Dan Duquette for my release his exacts words were ‘If you don’t go to Mexico we’ll suspend you indefinitely. We’re not going to give you your release because you’re the type of player that can come back and haunt us in the end,’” Woods said.
Woods added that Duquette deemed that he could not hit a breaking ball. What seemed like a demotion turned into a blessing in disguise.
“I started to hit every pitch (in Mexico),” Woods said. “I started recognizing what pitchers were trying to do to get me out. Once I learned that system, hitting became easy for me.”
He totaled 18 homers and 73 RBI in 85 games while in Mexico, eventually earning an opportunity with Pawtucket. Appearing in 29 contests, he hit .352 with nine home runs and drove in 28 runs, and was named International League Player of the Month.
After that season Woods said Duquette expressed interest in re-signing him, but Woods had no desire to return.
By that point Woods had plans to come back home and become a fireman. A friend and his future wife convinced him to attend a tryout in St. Petersburg for Korea Professional Baseball. It proved sage advice.
Earning a spot with the Doosan Bears, Woods burst onto the scene setting what was at the time a new single-season home run mark of 42 and capturing the league’s MVP award.
During five season from 1998-2002, Woods hit .293, tallying 174 homers and 510 RBI. In 2001 he became the first player in league history to earn MVP of the league, the All-Star game and Korean Series. He hit four dingers in that Korean Series, guiding the Bears to a championship.
He accomplished all this despite dealing with what he felt was an extraordinary large strike zone in response to him being a successful foreigner.
“I never gave up,” Woods said. “I knew I could do it. But it took me longer to come around and start hitting. Once I started to put everything together and really believing in myself, I really started prospering, hitting for more power as well as average.”
Feeling he had nothing left to prove in Korea, Woods moved on to Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan in 2003. He played for the Yokohama BayStars for two seasons, hitting 40 and 45 home runs to tie for the league lead in each respective year.
His final four seasons were spent with Chunichi Dragons. In 2006 he hit .310 with a league-high and team-record 47 homers and 144 RBI to help the Dragons win the Central League crown.
Chunichi would lose the Japan Series to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters that year, but beat them to the take the series in 2007.
Though he hit 35 home runs in 2008, Woods finally walked away from the game, growing weary of the travel. His Japanese career featured a .289 average, 240 homers and 616 RBI. He was a three-time Home Run King (2003, 04 and 06) and a two-time RBI King.
He would never play again in the United States, though he did receive offers. None were ever guaranteed, though, and thus he was never compelled to leave the security offered overseas.
Since retiring he has had a chance to return to Asian baseball as a scout. For now he has declined, but in the meantime he can sit back and enjoy the memories.
“It was definitely one of the best times of my life,” Woods said of his days in Japan. “It was a dream come true as far as playing over there, winning the Home Run King award, the RBI King award, winning a championship and being in a totally different culture.”