With spring sports seasons taken away from so many athletes across the country, the Northwoods League has been an unexpected blessing for John Rhodes and many other college baseball players this summer.
Rhodes had shown All-American potential in his first season at the University of Kentucky before the COVID-19 pandemic halted the Wildcats' season the second week of March and ultimately canceled it. A month later, the famed Cape Cod Baseball League, widely considered the premier organization for summer collegiate baseball, called off its 2020 season that was set to start in mid-June.
"Nobody expected to play in summer ball," Rhodes said. "Our coach basically told us get used to training on your own. But the Northwoods just rode it out. We started July 1 and are playing 48 games in 49 days. It's like I get a college season in when I didn't think I was going to."
The Chattanooga Christian School graduate's hot bat has picked up right where it left off on March 10, when he was hitting .426 (26-of-61) through 17 games for the Wildcats.
Rhodes has settled in extremely well at his summer home in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin — or more specifically, he has settled in on the baseball field there with the Dock Spiders. Heading into Sunday, he ranked second in the 22-team Northwoods League with a .426 batting average (20-of-47) and hit his first home run on Thursday. His .518 on-base percentage ranked third.
The competition in the wooden bat league has helped produce Major League Baseball talents including Curtis Granderson, Chris Sale and Max Scherzer, and it has benefited this year from the absence of other options for college players.
"Half of the players in this league are guys who were supposed to play in the Cape Cod league," Rhodes said. "Our team has three guys from Ole Miss, two from Vanderbilt, three from UCLA and two from Oregon. Every other team has good players. The other night we faced a guy who is supposed to be a first-round pick."
In 2020, Rhodes has been a fastball masher. He said at college and back home he has hit fastballs off machines coming as fast as 110 mph. Sitting on speedy pitches has worked out pretty well so far for Rhodes, who batted .560 with 24 extra-base hits and 17 stolen bases in 30 games his senior year for CCS.
Rhodes is focused on helping bring national success to Kentucky, though his ultimate individual goal is obviously reaching the majors. Recently, he spoke with a former Wildcat who went 17th overall in the 2017 MLB amateur draft.
"I talked to Evan White on the phone the other day, and I asked him about how he was so consistent in college," Rhodes said of the player who batted better than .370 his sophomore and junior seasons before being drafted by the Seattle Mariners. "He told me you have to truly believe in your heart that you are an All-American at all times. You have to truly believe you are the best player in the country."
Although his quick college success surprised him a little at first, Rhodes said he now expects himself to win every battle in the batter's box.
"When I walk to the plate, I am looking at the pitcher like 'You can't beat me,'" Rhodes said. "You have to compete your heart out and never doubt yourself. It starts with that belief of 'I belong, this is what I need to do and the results will follow.' Once you get that down, the results will not surprise you."
Rhodes, though aware slumps are part of baseball, leans on a strong work ethic and a disciplined routine to keep himself sharp physically and mentally. While he has shown success handling fastballs, Rhodes knows one of his next challenges is being able to hit off the elite arms that can place sliders and changeups wherever they want.
"You can time up a fastball, but when it looks like a fastball from 50 feet and then it darts to your feet, that's when it gets difficult," he said. "I faced Kumar Rocker in high school, and it's tough when you are facing someone who can throw their slider nearly 90 miles per hour."
While Rhodes was among the best hitters in the Southeastern Conference and college baseball during the brief time granted this year, he also knows the importance of working to prove himself as a five-tool player.
And right now, he's especially grateful to have the chance to play anywhere.
"I am loving it up here," Rhodes said. "I am working hard and do want to be a first-round pick one day. I want to be in the best position to succeed, and I am grateful to have such nice facilities and to be playing against the best competition."