For those who know baseball in Frederick County, it will be a jarring sight to one day peer into the Frederick High School dugout and not see Phil Rhodes.
For 30 seasons, Rhodes has been the constant presence for the Cadets, the steady hand shepherding the baseball program through seasons when it was very good — it won a state title in 2009 and reached the state semifinals in 1996, ‘99 and 2005 with Rhodes as the coach — and seasons when it struggled to win a game.
All the while, no matter the record, Rhodes maintained a personable, no-nonsense demeanor and enjoyed nothing more than teaching the game, getting to know his players and their families. He strove to do right by the game and pushed his players to do the right thing, even if it wasn’t easy.
“He kind of is Frederick baseball, and not just Frederick High School baseball,” said Brandon Brewbaker, the Cadets’ girls lacrosse coach who sat in Rhodes’ health class as a freshman student in 1995 before graduating from the school in ‘99. “He’s been so influential on baseball in general in the county. So many people have either played for him and coached for him.”
Which is why it might seem so strange when he is no longer there.
This is Rhodes’ final season as Frederick’s baseball coach. He will turn 60 on June 26. As much as he still loves the job, the physical demands of the it, most notably getting the field ready, have become too much for him. It’s a six-days-a-week job during the season because the Cadets always have a Saturday practice, if not a game.
“There’s a lot more to it than filling out a lineup card and going through batting practice before a game,” he said.
The finality of the moment is starting to hit Rhodes, although no one can say with certainty when his final game will be. The playoffs start next week, and every game the Cadets (2-7) play could be the final one or just another step in the journey.
As Rhodes was dragging the field Thursday, getting it ready for a scheduled game later that afternoon against Brunswick, he thought to himself, “You know, I am not going to get many more chances to do this.” The thought carried both a sense of sadness and relief.
Thursday’s game was supposed to be the final regular-season game of Rhodes’ coaching career. His family and several former players and colleagues were going to be there to help commemorate the moment. But then it rained, and the game was canceled. So, it’s on to the playoffs and all of the uncertainty it brings.
“That’s baseball,” Rhodes said.
Brewbaker referred to Rhodes as the Bill Walsh of Frederick County coaches. And, like the legendary former football coach for the San Francisco 49ers, the Rhodes’ coaching tree is expansive and fruit-bearing.
Urbana coach Mike Frownfelter, Thomas Johnson coach Billy Gross and Tuscarora coach Mike O’Brien all played for Rhodes, while Catoctin coach Mike Franklin and Oakdale coach Sam Mills served stints on his coaching staff.
“He’s been like a father figure to me,” Frownfelter said. “From high school to giving me my first opportunity as assistant coach, talked me into getting into teaching and then getting the opportunity as a head coach. He’s the first guy that calls me after every game we play, or I’ll call him to see how the games went. For the last 16 seasons, I have always had that relationship with him.”
Many former players have a similar relationship with Rhodes. Once you join his baseball family, you are always a part of it.
“First time I met him, he was just very easy to talk to, cracking jokes, always had a smile on his face,” said Brady Wilson, who was a star infielder for Rhodes at Frederick High before graduating after the state championship season in 2009. He went on to play at West Virginia University and briefly for a professional team in the Texas Summer League. “Coach Rhodes would always bring up random situations, just to make you think.”
Whether Frederick High was the best team in the county or the worst team in the county, Rhodes never changed as a person or a coach. The wins and the losses paled in comparison to teaching the game and building relationships.
“People always ask me if the state championship team in ‘09 was my favorite team of all time,” Rhodes said. “I can honestly say I have enjoyed every team I have ever coached. The one constant has been the kids. They show up to practice every day, ready to work.”
In turn, Rhodes has felt obligated to show up every day and give them his best effort.
“He just had the perfect ingredients of a good coach,” Wilson said. “His mix of teaching the game, making it easy to understand, not overcomplicating things, was very good for me. It was a very calming thing, having him as my coach.”
For the past few years, Rhodes and his wife, Beth, have sat down during the fall to have a conversation about whether he wanted to continue coaching.
Rhodes has not had a child in the program since his son, Cory, graduated in 2005. So, all of the hours invested over the last 16 years were simply because he enjoyed the job. There were no bloodlines attached.
One of the things the pandemic robbed from Rhodes, in addition to last season, was the chance to join his players early every Saturday morning at the Mountain View Diner on West Patrick Street for team breakfasts. He said he missed those dearly. It was those off-the-field encounters that allowed Rhodes to better connect with his players, and, as a result, made him a better coach.
Last fall, Rhodes told Beth that he thought he was done coaching after this season, which surprised her. He had previously told her he could see himself coaching for a few more seasons.
“This year was never really targeted or anything like that,” he said. “It’s just that the job was becoming too physically demanding for me, and I thought it was the right time to step away.”
Rhodes will continue to teach physical education at Frederick High School for the foreseeable future and keep tabs on the baseball team. The temptation will be to go to games regularly, sans responsibilities, and provide feedback on what he is seeing. But he said he is going to try and resist that as much as he can.
“The beautiful thing about the new Frederick High School is there is a stairwell with a big window that overlooks the baseball field,” he said. “So, it will give me the chance to watch the games from a little distance. And on those 40-degree March days early in the season, that’s where I will be, watching the game in a nice, climate-controlled environment.”