THE CASE FOR SO
From the St. Louis Arch to the gates of Graceland, a lot of Cardinal baseball fans must be scratching their heads these days over Memphis Redbird outfielder So Taguchi. The former Gold Glove outfielder with the Orix Blue Wave of Japans Pacific League was signed to a much-hyped three year contract last January that pays him $1 million a year.
With seven figures on his contract, Cardinal fans had to presume this was at least a baby-step in the same direction Seattle took when they lured all-world Ichiro Suzuki (a former teammate of Taguchis) to the Pacific northwest. While a million beans may be pocket change to Sammy and A-Rod, its not minor-league compensation.
Alas, four months into his first season in the western hemisphere, Taguchi has played all of four games for the Cardinals, with four at bats and nary a base hit. Hes been an everyday outfielder for our Redbirds, though his batting average has dipped below .250 for most of the season, he hasnt shown much power, and hasnt been on base enough to make his speed a real asset for Gaylen Pitts club. So Cardinal Nation is asking: What in the name of Sadaharu Oh did St. Louis brass see in this guy? And what about that million-dollar price tag?
First and foremost, Cardinal (and Redbird) fans need to cut the 32-year-old rookie some slack. The day he first put on a Memphis jersey, Taguchi had a pair of enormously high (and unfair) standards by which hed be measured. The first is Ichiro, either the best or worst thing that has ever happened to Japanese professional baseball. In 2001, the cannon-armed speed demon became the first player in 26 years to earn both Rookie of the Year and MVP honors. To expect the same from a player whose career average over 10 years in Japan was .277 is irrational.
The second lofty standard is the Jackie Robinson effect. From Hank Greenberg, to Robinson himself, to Fernando Valenzuela, baseball fans have come to expect players in a particular cultural vanguard to exceed normal standards of achievement. As a measure of how unbalanced this perspective can be, the fact is Greenberg was not the first Jew to play major league baseball, nor Valenzuela the first Mexican. They were the first stars to carry their respective cultural flags into the national pastime, so history has placed them in the same category Robinson very much earned. Taguchi is the first Japanese player in 110 years of Cardinal baseball, which is meaningful in itself. But as with every investment in a professional athlete, theres no performance guarantee.
As youre disecting Taguchis disappointing offensive numbers, check the rest of the Memphis stat sheet. Youll see players like Jon Nunnally,
Warren Morris, and Chad Meyers -- each with a few big-league notches on his belt -- havent exactly torn the cover off the ball in Pacific Coast League play. Despite his struggles, Taguchi has played a solid centerfield and, best of all, hustles out of the batters box regardless of what kind of contact hes made. On top of that, he can actually be seen smiling now and then.
Which brings us to the reason So Taguchi remains worth rooting for, and remains a sound investment for the Cardinals. The easy approach for Taguchi would have been to add a clause to his contract that stipulated if he did not make the Cardinal roster by a certain date, the contract was void and he could return to Japan and pick up where he left off with the Blue Wave. (This was the clause that had Gerald Williams in and out
of Memphis quicker than spring.) Instead, Taguchi chose to fight the
good fight and try and earn a roster spot, just as countless other
ballplayers in 30 major league farm systems are doing this summer. He
asked no special favor, and has yet to display the kind of sulking all
but expected these days from players on the cusp of reaching The Show.
So Taguchi is no Ichiro. Hes certainly no Jackie Robinson. And despite
wearing number 6, hes still not in the same baseball hemisphere as Stan
Musial. But hes a fighter, and a noble one at that. And wearing a
baseball uniform. Perhaps a pioneer after all.