January 29, 2002: Cardinals sign their first Japanese-born player, So Taguchi

Walt Jocketty wasn’t quite sure what he was purchasing when the Cardinals announced the signing of their first Japanese-born player, 32-year-old outfielder So Taguchi, to a three-year contract in January 2002.

After all, Jocketty had never even seen the 10-year veteran of the Japan Pacific League play. Neither had Tony La Russa. Instead, the Cardinals were relying on the expertise of scouts Joe Sparks and Marty Keough, who had watched Taguchi work out at Arizona State University.[1]

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the contract was worth an estimated $1 million per year with the opportunity to reach $2 million per year with incentives[2] and a $600,000 signing bonus.[3] If Taguchi did not make the major-league roster, the contract gave him the freedom to decline the assignment and continue his playing career in Japan. The Cardinals won Taguchi’s services over offers from the New York Yankees, Texas Rangers, and Arizona Diamondbacks, and multiyear offers in Japan that would have paid between $10 and $12 million.[4]

As a member of the Orix Blue Wave in Japan, where he had played alongside 2001 American League MVP Ichiro Suzuki. Taguchi brought a .277 career batting average and five Japanese Gold Glove awards, and hit .280/.343/.406 with eight homers and 42 RBIs in 134 games in 2001. Jocketty suggested that Taguchi was in the mix to be the Cardinals’ starting left fielder that season. Prior to signing Taguchi, the Cardinals planned to move Placido Polanco to left field after Albert Pujols had taken over third base the previous season.

“We’ll see where he fits in the mix,” La Russa said.[5]

Upon his arrival to the United States, Taguchi spoke little English and was assigned an interpreter.

In Japan, he had worn No. 6, but the Cardinals already had retired that number in honor of Stan Musial. Taguchi then requested No. 9, but that had been retired in honor of Enos Slaughter and Joe Medwick. Instead, Taguchi settled for his third choice, No. 99.[6]

Almost three weeks after the Cardinals announced Taguchi’s signing, he arrived in St. Louis to officially sign the contract. At a press conference with owner Bill DeWitt Jr. in attendance, the Cardinals presented Taguchi with a Cardinals cap and jersey. Taguchi read a statement to the press in English.

“I’m So Taguchi, and I’m very happy to join the great history of the St. Louis Cardinals,” he said. “I want to thank the fans for being so kind to me. I am very excited about this new challenge, but they have been very nice. The St. Louis fans have been a great help in making me feel comfortable. I have been here only a few days, and already I love this city.”[7]

He then thanked the audience for “listening to my poor English” and said he hoped to speak next year without the assistance of a written statement.

Just a few days earlier, Taguchi had been in the lobby of the Millenium Hotel when some fans recognized him and asked for his autograph. His wife Emiko, who lived in Irvine California, for two years and spoke English fluently, asked the fans to come to the Winter Warmup for more autographs so that Taguchi would have someone in his line.[8]

She needn’t have worried.

The following afternoon, Taguchi’s line was as long as those for Matt Morris, Jim Edmonds, and Ozzie Smith. When an announcement came over the PA system cautioning fans that the signing sessions would end before newcomers to the lines could get their items signed, Emiko cried.

“It was awesome,” she said. “He looked out there and all he could say was, ‘Wow.’ He had four offers from teams in the United States and two from Japanese teams. The fans were a very big factor (in his decision) to play in St. Louis.”[9]

While Cardinals fans were happy to welcome Taguchi to the United States, opposing pitchers were not so friendly. Taguchi went just 6 for 41 (.140) in spring training and appeared overmatched at times. Prior to the Cardinals’ March 23 spring training game against the Orioles, La Russa sat down with Taguchi in the dugout and explained that his future with the club would have to come through Triple-A Memphis.

“I explained the situation to him,” La Russa said. “I wanted to let him know where he stood.”[10]

For his part, Taguchi was not surprised. “What everyone suspected,” he said.[11]

While Taguchi had the opportunity to earn more money by returning to Japan, he told the Cardinals that he would accept the option to Memphis.

“I am going to stay to see this through,” he said through an interpreter. “I want to play in St. Louis. I want to play for this organization. I want to play for Tony La Russa.”[12]

Jocketty recommended patience, noting that both Suzuki and Tsujoshi Shinjo, the first two Japanese position players to make major league rosters, also struggled early in spring training the previous year.

“I think it’s too early to pass judgment,” Jocketty said. “I don’t know if we’ve actually seen what he can do yet. I think that’s why it’s more important to give him more time to show whether he can hit. He may not, but we’ve at least got to give him that opportunity.”[13]

The 2002 season was all about making adjustments for Taguchi, who widened his stance and shortened his stroke.[14] In Triple-A Memphis, he hit .247 with five homers and 36 RBIs in 304 at-bats. In Double-A New Haven, he hit .308 in 120 at-bats.

In June, he was briefly called up after Jim Edmonds was injured. After going 0-for-3 in his debut, he was used as a defensive replacement in three other games. He returned to the majors as a September call-up on September 7 and got his first major-league hit while pinch-hitting for Yadier Molina in a 6-5 win over the Cubs. Used primarily as a late-inning replacement, Taguchi went 6-for-11 that September.

In 2003, Taguchi again split time between St. Louis and Memphis. In 43 major-league games, he went 14-for-59 for a .259 batting average with three homers and 13 RBIs. On September 12, Taguchi hit his first career home run in a 14-5 loss to the Astros.

On the final day of the season, Taguchi hit a three-run home run 414 feet[15] in a 9-5 win over the Diamondbacks.

For the next four seasons, Taguchi would prove a valuable outfielder off the bench for the Cardinals. In 2004, he hit .291/.337/.419 in 206 plate appearances. In 2005, he enjoyed his best major-league season with a .288/.322/.412 line with eight homers and 53 RBIs in 424 plate appearances. In a June 24 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Taguchi homered twice to drive in three runs in an 8-1 Cardinals win.

Taguchi helped the Cardinals win their 10th world championship in 2006. In Game 3 of the NLDS, Taguchi accounted for St. Louis’s only run when he hit a pinch-hit home run in the eighth inning off Scott Linebrink.

Taguchi had an even bigger impact in the NLCS against the Mets. In Game 2, he entered the game as a defensive replacement in the eighth inning. With the score tied 6-6, he hit a leadoff home run against Mets closer Billy Wagner. Later in the inning, Scott Spiezio hit an RBI double and Juan Encarnacion added an RBI single in a 9-6 victory.

“He’s not a big home run hitter, but I’m serious when I tell you: give him a clutch at-bat and he’ll give you a real good effort,” La Russa said. “You’re expecting a single or double, not a home run, especially off Billy Wagner. You can tell the experience. He was a big-time player and he’s not intimidated by it.”[16]

In Game 6, Taguchi came through against Wagner once again, this time with a two-run double in the ninth inning of a 4-2 loss.

He went 2-for-11 with a walk and three runs scored in the Cardinals’ World Series win over the Detroit Tigers, starting three games. In the third inning of Game 1, Molina led off with a single and La Russa called a hit-and-run. Desperate to reach an outside pitch from Justin Verlander, Taguchi threw the bat at the ball, getting just enough of the ball to stay alive. Though he wound up grounding out, he advanced Molina to second on the play and kept the inning alive for a three run rally as Chris Duncan doubled to right field and Pujols hit a two-out, two-run homer.

After batting .290 with a .350 on-base percentage in 2007, including a .406 batting average as a pinch hitter, the Cardinals declined Taguchi’s $1.1 million option for the 2008 season. Rather than engage in arbitration, the team released Taguchi at his agent’s request.

Taguchi signed a one-year, $1.05 million deal with the Phillies that included a club option for 2009 and performance bonuses. In his lone season in Philadelphia, he hit .220 in 91 at-bats and won his second World Series ring as the Phillies defeated the Tampa Bay Rays in five games.

In 2009, he signed a minor-league deal with the Cubs and spent most of the season in Triple-A. Taguchi played two more seasons in Japan before retiring in 2012. That fall, he began broadcasting Major League Baseball games in Japan. In 2016, he returned to Orix (now nicknamed the Buffaloes) as a member of the coaching staff. He now serves as the team’s hitting coach.[17]


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[1] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals take gamble on outfielder from Japan,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 10, 2002: Page D1.

[2] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals take gamble on outfielder from Japan,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 10, 2002: Page D1.

[3] Joe Strauss, “Taguchi is told by Cardinals that he’s probably headed to Memphis,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 24, 2002: Page D1.

[4] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals take gamble on outfielder from Japan,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 10, 2002: Page D2.

[5] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals take gamble on outfielder from Japan,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 10, 2002: Page D2.

[6] Rick Hummel, “Cardinals take gamble on outfielder from Japan,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 10, 2002: Page D2.

[7] Mike Eisenbath, “Warm welcome from fans has Taguchi saying ‘Wow’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 22, 2002: Page C5.

[8] Mike Eisenbath, “Warm welcome from fans has Taguchi saying ‘Wow’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 22, 2002: Page C5.

[9] Mike Eisenbath, “Warm welcome from fans has Taguchi saying ‘Wow’” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 22, 2002: Page C5.

[10] Joe Strauss, “Taguchi is told by Cardinals that he’s probably headed to Memphis,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 24, 2002: Page D1.

[11] Joe Strauss, “Taguchi is told by Cardinals that he’s probably headed to Memphis,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 24, 2002: Page D1.

[12] Joe Strauss, “Taguchi is told by Cardinals that he’s probably headed to Memphis,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 24, 2002: Page D15.

[13] Joe Strauss, “Taguchi is told by Cardinals that he’s probably headed to Memphis,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 24, 2002: Page D15.

[14] Joe Strauss, “Williams is uncertain for next start in Houston,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 13, 2002: Page B5.

[15] Joe Strauss, “Pujols’ batting title is highlight of finale,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 29, 2003: Page D5.

[16] Joe Strauss, “Cardinals save their best for last,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 15, 2006: Page C9.

[17] Orix Buffaloes Player Directory 2021, https://www.buffaloes.co.jp/team/player/detail/2021_81.html.

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