Called Up: Newman alum Rod ‘The Ageless Arm’ Tafoya is staying in the game
By Angela Howell
It was in the fifth inning that the line drive came torpedoing at pitcher Rod Tafoya at 90 mph. The combacker hit him squarely on his side, fracturing a rib and smashing untold numbers of blood vessels.
It hurt, but in typical Tafoya fashion, he gutted it out, staying on the mound for the rest of the Aug. 2 game.
“I didn’t want the other team to think they had taken me out,” Tafoya said. His team, the Alpine Cowboys, part of the Independent Pecos League, won the game 10 to 1. He pitched a four-hitter with 11 strikeouts.
Tafoya, a 1989 Kansas Newman College graduate, knows how to hold his ground. At 50, Tafoya is in his fourth decade as a professional baseball player.
Last May, three days before his 50th birthday, he clinched his 300th victory, a milestone for any pitcher. In Major League Baseball, it would assure a spot in the Hall of Fame. In amateur baseball, no other pitcher is close to 200 wins. Moreover, the 300 doesn’t take into account the 94 wins Tafoya achieved in the minors and college.
The night of that historic win, Tafoya was pitching for the Albuquerque Yankees and executed a 139-pitch complete game over the Albuquerque Colt .45s. He led the Yankees to triumph 11-4, while racking up 12 strikeouts. The stats are part of the scorebooks now, but what many people don’t know is that under his uniform, Tafoya was wearing his lucky Newman shirt. It’s the same shirt he likes to wear during interviews and photo shoots, as a way of paying homage to his alma mater.
News of Tafoya’s 300 wins garnered widespread attention when it was written up by The Associated Press. The story quickly went viral, appearing in more than 70 newspapers, magazines and broadcasts, including Sports Illustrated, ESPN and USA Today. The City of Santa Fe, N.M., honored Tafoya with a proclamation from the mayor proclaiming it “Rod ‘The Ageless Arm’ Tafoya’s 300th Victory Day.” Whenever Tafoya is in the spotlight like this, he makes a point of bringing up Newman.
“I’m indebted to the university for fueling my fire to achieve bigger and better goals in my life,” Tafoya said. “I want to give them exposure. I wouldn’t be where I am without going to Newman.”
That doesn’t mean that he didn’t have his doubts when he first transferred to Newman in 1985. Wichita, in the heart of the Great Plains, was vastly different from his hometown of Santa Fe, the most Southwestern of cities. Tafoya initially suffered from culture shock. He wasn’t sure if he was going to fit in. He found the presence of crosses and other displays of Catholicism in the hallways and on school materials comforting. Over time, Tafoya realized that Newman was the perfect setting for him.
“Newman reinforced the lifestyle and the work ethic that I needed,” Tafoya said. “I got faith back in my heart while I was there. It became the cornerstone of my life.”
His introduction to baseball came much earlier, from his first coach, his older brother Jack. When Tafoya was growing up, his care often fell to his 15-year-old baseball-obsessed brother. Jack decided he would turn Tafoya into a baseball phenom. Jack tied his brother’s right arm behind him to teach him to throw lefty, knowing that southpaws often have more career longevity than right-handed pitchers. Tafoya remembers spending hours throwing pitches to his brother off a homemade mound in their backyard.
Newman Baseball Coach Paul Sanagorski was slightly more intimidating. When Tafoya arrived at Newman, Sanagorski was already a coaching legend, who had built Newman into a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics powerhouse.
“He was an inspiration and a pleasure to play for but he was tough in his own way,” Tafoya said. “He pushed the scholastic side. He was invested in the players, on and off the field.”
Tafoya achieved a 6-2 record and 86 strikeouts – then a school record – at Newman. When he finished his fourth year of eligibility, he left to play in the pro Mexican leagues.
Tafoya’s parents were divided about the move. His mother encouraged him to go.
“Mom told me, ‘You need to go play baseball. I know that’s your passion.’” Tafoya said.
His father, however, wanted him to get a degree so he could have a career.
“My dad didn’t understand baseball, but he understood hard work and commitment,” Tafoya said. “I learned the value of hard work from him and passion from my mom. Combine that with the strength I get from God, and I was bound to have a successful life.”
Much to his father’s delight, Tafoya returned to Newman to finish his degree in business management in 1989. That has led him to his day job: bank vice president at Bank of the West in Albuquerque.
“I get to be Clark Kent,” Tafoya said. “I wear a suit to my job and then take it off at night to put on my baseball uniform.”
Tafoya uses his vacation time to travel to tournaments. In addition to his regular team, he picks up spot starts on 11 other teams, playing 10 months out of the year.
Tafoya’s record number of victories pitching in U.S., Mexico and Puerto Rico leagues includes five career no-hitters and one perfect game. He has played on 87 different teams in his career, amassing 23 championships – 14 state, eight national, and one professional.
He has thrown more than 70,000 pitches, never needing arm surgery, and his fastball still hits 86 mph. This has earned him the moniker “The Ageless Arm,” which is also the name of Tafoya’s 2012 autobiography.
What holds everything together is faith, Tafoya said. When his mother died of cancer three years ago, he promised her that he would always maintain his faith. Later, he found a stack of her prayers, which he treasures. During his hour-long drive to work every morning, he says the rosary.
Both of his parents have passed away, and he now lives in the house that they bought in 1951 and in which they raised their five children. He attends the same church in which he grew up. He leads student athletes through batting practice at the same Santa Fe high school where he played. To Tafoya, it’s all part of giving back to the community that cheered him on through the years.
Tafoya has a room in his house full of museum-worthy baseball collectibles, including a baseball from every one of his winning games, but he doesn’t like to dwell too long in the room.
“It’s kind of like pitching: You’re always looking to your next game, not looking back at your last,” Tafoya said. “I love the history, but what really grabs me is living today and what can happen tomorrow.”
This is why Tafoya dismissed the suggestions of well-meaning friends that he use the downtime recovering from his recent injury as a chance to take a break and relax.
Not a chance. He was on the road a few days later making the seven-hour drive to support his teammates at the championship games.
“The idea of taking a break makes me edgy,” Tafoya said. “People ask me when I’m going to retire. Why would I retire from something I love?”
Tafoya is now writing a book, Inside the Core: The Passion Lives On, a follow-up to his autobiography. It is scheduled to be released in time for the 2015 baseball season, when Tafoya will again be playing with the Alpine Cowboys.
“I’m shooting for 400 now,” Tafoya said. “I want to be out of reach for the next guy who’s chasing me, if there’s anyone crazy enough to chase me!”